NPR logo Obama's Aides Play Hamlet On Social Security-Cut Or No Cut: News Report

Obama's Aides Play Hamlet On Social Security-Cut Or No Cut: News Report

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, standing left, shares a laugh with David Axelrod, seated right, October 2010. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/ASSOCIATED PRESS hide caption

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Pablo Martinez Monsivais/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, standing left, shares a laugh with David Axelrod, seated right, October 2010.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Hill has an interesting piece about a split between President Obama's aides on the question of whether or not he should try to cut Social Security benefits to help reduce the growing threat of entitlement's to the nation's fiscal health.

According to the story by Alexander Bolton, the heavyweights on the president's economic team, including Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, are arguing for Obama to reduce benefits through measures like cutting the Social Security retirement age.

That would send a powerful signal to the bond markets that Geithner gets paid to worry about.

On the other side, Bolton reports, are Obama's political heavyweights, people like David Axelrod, who may not be saying "Are you crazy?" in so many words but that's their meaning.

An excerpt:

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling and Sperling's deputy, Jason Furman — leading figures in the president's economic team — are pressing Obama to cut Social Security benefits if necessary, say sources familiar with their positions.

But Obama's political team, led by David Axelrod, David Plouffe and Jim Messina, are urging the president to understand that backing benefit cuts could prove disastrous to his 2012 reelection hopes, sources say.

The political team is winning the argument so far, but internal debate rages at the White House as Republicans in Congress insist sweeping efforts to restore government finances must include Social Security reform.

It's easy to believe that last paragraph, that the political people are winning the argument. President's tend to have very highly attuned political antenna. That's how they get to be president.

So the president knows better than most the political risks he'd run in cutting benefits to appease the markets.

None of the polls I've seen indicate the public is ready to tackle the nation's fiscal problems by cutting Social Security. Far from it. Many voters wrongly think "fraud, waste and abuse" and foreign aid are where the real savings are.

And for the president, the downside that can come from radical changes in domestic policy is not theoretical.

He paid a severe political price in overhauling health care. And that was actually something he campaigned on, so it shouldn't have been a surprise to voters.

Also, when the president looks at Axelrod and Plouffe, he's looking at the aides who helped him gain the Oval Office. For him to lean their way is about "dancing with them that brung ya." And they've proven they know how to dance over the electoral college map.

That ability in 2012 could be tested even more than it was in 2008 because the electoral map has shifted, with states like North Carolina, Virginia and Pennsylvania looking dicier for the president.

That changed political map obviously raises the political risks for the president in siding with Geithner over the Axelrod camp. So, again, no surprise he's tilting Axelrod's way.

By the way, when Bolton asked a White House about the split, a spokesperson seemed to deny that one exists:

White House spokeswoman Amy Brundage said, "The notion that the president's team is divided on our approach to this issue is flatly untrue. The president and his team are unified in the belief that the only way to reach consensus on strengthening Social Security for future generations is for Democrats and Republicans work together in a bipartisan way, and any suggestion to the contrary is simply false."Sperling declined to answer questions about Social Security when asked about them by The Hill during his visit to Capitol Hill last week.

I said she "seemed to deny" the existence of a split because, if you read her statement carefully, she raises the issue to the higher plane of the White House team's overall goal, saying the president's aides are "unified" in the need for a bipartisan solution.

Well, with the Republicans controlling the House, everyone knows it's going to take a bipartisan solution, that's stating the obvious.

But that doesn't mean there isn't disagreement between the econ types and the politicos about whether it's really necessary to go out on a limb before Election Day 2012 with a presidential proposal to cut Social Security benefits.