Cutting Entitlements Could Be Politically Risky

When President Obama released his budget plan for next year, some were disappointed that he didn't do more to cut back on entitlements like Medicare and Social Security.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley has been listening with us to the budget director, Jack Lew.

And Scott, you have let's start off: Is it politically impossible for the White House to touch entitlements right now?

SCOTT HORSLEY: Well, not impossible, Renee, but it is politically risky. You hear Jack Lew talking about that experience in the 1980s that he was involved in, and the administration points to that experience both as a hopeful sign that Democrats and Republicans can work together on a problem like this, as Lew's former boss Tip O'Neill worked with then President Reagan. But they also see it as a cautionary tale of what happens when a president tries to act too soon on his own before the proper groundwork's been laid. Ronald Reagan tried that in 1981. He wound up beating a hasty retreat when his own Social Security plan was attacked, and President Obama does not want to repeat that experience.

MONTAGNE: And it's a good time to point out, then, that in the last election, Republicans brutalized Democrats for adjusting Medicare, and Democrats brutalized Republicans for talking about changes to Social Security - just talking about changes.

HORSLEY: Yeah, that's the kind of toxic atmosphere that Lew is, I guess, trying to avoid here. And you notice how careful he is to say that Social Security doesn't contribute to the deficit in the near term, although it does have its own long-term funding gap. That's because the defenders of Social Security are very much on a hair trigger and react whenever it is suggested that Social Security is a deficit driver.

We should say, too, that, you know, Social Security, of all the long-term challenges that the government faces, that's the easiest one to fix. Very modest adjustments to taxes, very modest adjustments to benefits could solve that problem. Health care's the much tougher nut to crack.

MONTAGNE: Well, just a - almost a yes or no answer: In the budget, are cuts to discretionary programs, are those cuts popular?

HORSLEY: Well, Renee, we're still seeing resistance to the cut in heating assistance for low-income families. The challenge on all these cuts is that Americans tend want more government than we're willing to pay for.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much. That's NPR's Scott Horsley.

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