Conflict: WH economic team battles political team over whether to reform Social Security now

The economic team has a crazy hunch that entitlement reform is fiscally urgent and worth pursuing at a moment when Democrats have leverage in the Senate and the White House. The political team, knowing how seniors will react, is naturally warning Obama that it would be electoral suicide.

I wonder which one he’ll side with.

Obama’s economics team is telling the president that benefit cuts would be less draconian with Democrats controlling the White House. Cutting costs for the safety net would help bond markets and restrain future interest rates, they add…

Geithner and his lieutenants argue that benefits reform will give the markets confidence that Obama and Congress have the will to address the problem of long-term national debt…

Plouffe, a senior White House political adviser, appeared to slam the door shut on even modest cuts during a conference call with liberal reporters and bloggers last month…

One Democratic source familiar with the internal debate said Obama’s political team gained the upper hand when three House Republican members of the president’s fiscal commission voted against a proposal that would have raised the retirement age and slowed cost-of-living raises.

They argued that it made no sense for Obama to alienate his liberal base if Republicans would not support a good-faith effort to reduce Social Security’s cost curve.

Just to make sure you understand what a joke that boldfaced part is, one of the three Republicans who ended up voting no on the Deficit Commission report was — ta da — Paul Ryan. And needless to say, the man behind the Roadmap has no qualms about Social Security reform; the reason he voted no was because the Bowles/Simpson proposal wasn’t aggressive enough in controlling health-care costs. (In fact, Ryan praised Bowles/Simpson for taking a “few steps forward” on Social Security.) Does the White House seriously expect people to believe that Paul Ryan isn’t a good-faith partner on reducing cost curves? Seriously?

Still, as much as it grieves me to admit it, there really isn’t an upside for Obama in doing this now. One of the best arguments in favor of dealing with entitlements ASAP is that we have divided government at the moment, and divided government guarantees that the public backlash will be spread to both parties. But O’s probably banking on the fact that that will still be true two years from now. He thinks he’ll be reelected; he probably thinks (as most analysts do) that the GOP will hold the House, albeit maybe with a reduced majority; and the Senate could go either way, but almost certainly with the GOP picking up some seats. Worst-case scenario for the White House, then, is that Obama and a fully Republican Congress hammer out an entitlements compromise in his second term, when he’s safe from reelection pressure. Best-case scenario is that they hammer one out in his second term with a Democratic Senate, which will give his party a bit more leverage over the final package. In fact, if the left is really worried about deep cuts to Social Security, even a complete GOP takeover next year — including an Obama defeat — wouldn’t be a grave threat. For all their budget-cutting bravado, Republicans aren’t about to own entitlement reform by passing some massive package all on their own. They need Democrats to share blame, either in Congress or in the White House. If they have to do it on their own, their entitlements package is likely to be modest to minimize the backlash, with an eye towards passing a deeper bill once Democrats are back in charge somewhere. Which brings me back to the original point: What do Obama and his supporters gain by doing this now? Why not wait?

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