by Van Jones
(CNN) — Wednesday morning, President Barack Obama became the first Democratic president ever to propose cutting Social Security.
Democrats spend so much time defending the president, it is easy to forget that even the most beloved presidents make mistakes and missteps. His new budget, which proposes a new method of calculating inflation increases in Social Security payments, is a doozy.
Reps. Keith Ellison and Raul Grijalva, co-chairs of the Progressive Caucus, have been raising the alarm for months. Reps. Alan Grayson and Mark Takano circulated a letter firmly pledging to vote against any social safety net cuts. As of this moment, 33 representatives have signed.
Now, Obama is also getting pushback from outside Congress. Opposition runs the political gamut from the AFL-CIO to nonpartisan AARP to anti-tax activist Grover Norquist. A coalition of grass-roots organizations has organized to stop the cuts. It includes the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, MoveOn.org, Democracy for America, Social Security Works, Credo Action, my organization Rebuild the Dream and more.
Many of these groups supported the president in 2012. On Tuesday, they presented the signatures of more than 2 million Americans opposed to cutting Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid benefits.
Some may call this a knee-jerk response from liberals who would oppose any adjustments to New Deal programs. They are wrong.
Progressives must be willing to reform programs such as Social Security, precisely because they are so important. The question is how? There are better solutions that the president could champion. For example, we could shore up Social Security for decades by raising the cap on taxable income — so that it is not just poor and middle-class folks whose entire paychecks are taxed.
But Obama’s plan leaves that cap in place — protecting the wealthiest Americans. Instead of asking more from the rich to shore up Social Security, his proposed budget would take more from the middle class and poor.
Don’t let all the D.C. jargon fool you. Some in Washington would have us believe that Obama’s “Chained CPI” proposal is a mere tweak that more accurately reflects costs. Not true.
By changing the fine print on cost-of-living adjustments, Obama’s plan would ensure that benefits rise more slowly than inflation. That would have devastating impacts on ordinary people immediately upon passage, hurt more tomorrow and get worse each year.
Under his plan, as food and medicine gets more expensive, your Social Security check would grow only a tiny bit. This approach may help the government’s balance sheet, but it would hurt your pocketbook and your family. It is not cost savings; it is cost-shifting. To people who paid into the program for their entire lives, it is a cut — plain and simple.
Prices are rising even faster than inflation on things such as health care, which the elderly consume at a greater rate. The most accurate adjustment for inflation would actually give senior citizens more — not less, which is what they would get under Obama’s proposal. Our leaders should be trying to make life easier for middle-class families, not harder.
Second, we are told that we cannot balance the budget without cutting the social safety net. But we didn’t get into a budgetary hole because we spent too much money helping grandma. We have a budget imbalance because of the Bush wars and Bush tax cuts, combined with the economic downturn. Yet the Obama budget eliminates the recent automatic cuts to the Pentagon budget, even as it cuts Social Security and increases Medicare premiums for middle-class seniors. It doesn’t make any sense.
The administration says these cuts would come about only in the context of a so-called “balanced” compromise. But the numbers tell a different story. Economist Dean Baker notes that these cuts would hit the average retiree three times as hard as the recent tax increases hit the top 1%.
Budgets are a vision for the country expressed in dollars. Obama’s budget is far better than the Republican alternative. But it is time to start expecting more from the man elected twice to speak for the middle class.
Bad ideas from a great president are still bad ideas. Everyone who pulled the lever for Obama in November should call the White House today, and say simply: Mr. President, this is not change we can believe in.
Editor’s note: Van Jones, a CNN contributor, is president and founder of Rebuild the Dream, an online platform focusing on policy, economics and media. He was President Barack Obama’s green jobs adviser in 2009. He is also founder of Green for All, a national organization working to build a green economy. Follow him on Twitter: @VanJones68.