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Few things indicate a president no longer needs to worry about re-election more than his willingness to ignite an intraparty firestorm.
President Obama's decision to include in the budget proposal he's scheduled to unveil Wednesday a less generous way to calculate Social Security cost-of-living increases may be the clearest sign yet that his name will not again be on a presidential ballot.
Obama made a proposal during a 2011 budget showdown to cut Social Security and Medicare — but that was during a face-off with Republicans over whether they'd even agree to raise the debt ceiling. And he didn't provide many details on the cuts.
That pressure-packed moment, which ultimately led to a downgrade in the nation's credit rating, was the impetus for that offer of a "grand bargain" compromise.
Obama may not have the same pressure as then to offer up cuts to the nation's premiere social safety net programs. But he has.
It's the kind of in-your-face move that had he proposed it during his first term, Obama might have demoralized and angered enough Democrats to have hurt his re-election chances. It might even have spurred a primary challenge.
Now safely in a second term he won by promising a "balanced approach" to deficit reduction of tax increases and spending cuts, Obama is providing more details.
The decision to go on record as favoring the less generous chained-CPI method for calculating Social Security benefit increases echoes negotiations to avert the fiscal cliff at the end of 2012. At that time, Obama reportedly offered House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, a similar deal: Reduce Social Security spending from a revised method of calculating cost-of-living increases.
The so-called chained CPI approach works on the assumption that when prices rise on certain products and services, consumers respond by choosing less pricey substitutes. The bottom line is that such an approach would often lead to lower cost-of-living increases for those receiving Social Security benefits.
White House officials who gave journalists a preview of Obama's fiscal priorities said the fiscal 2014 budget proposal incorporates chained CPI and proposes that wealthier beneficiaries pay more of their Medicare costs.
His budget, which is really little more than a statement of his fiscal vision — and now takes its place alongside competing versions from Senate Democrats and House Republicans — puts Obama at odds with many of his political supporters, whose statements were filled with their sense of betrayal.
From the liberal group MoveOn.org's Executive Director Anna Galland:
"Millions of MoveOn members did not work night and day to put President Obama into office so that he could propose policies that would hurt some of our most vulnerable people. Just as we fought and defeated President Bush's plan to privatize Social Security, we will mobilize and stop this attempt to diminish the vital guarantee of Social Security."
And because Obama's proposal offers to trim spending on the two sacred cow entitlement programs in exchange for tax increases, it may not ulitmately get him closer to an agreement with congressional Republicans.
In a statement, Boehner said:
"When the president visited the Capitol last month, House Republicans stated a desire to find common ground and urged him not to make savings we agree upon conditional on another round of tax increases. If reports are accurate, the president has not heeded that call. If the president believes these modest entitlement savings are needed to help shore up these programs, there's no reason they should be held hostage for more tax hikes. That's no way to lead and move the country forward."
Still, the president's proposal on entitlements lets him continue to strike the stance of a leader willing to make compromises even on programs that are sacrosanct to many in his own party.
But now, it seems possible that more Democrats running for re-election in the 2014 midterms may find themselves running away from Obama. Especially with liberal activists making not-so-veiled threats of primary challenges to incumbents who link themselves to the chained CPI.
Peter Fenn, a veteran Democratic political consultant, said in an interview that those kinds of challenges could be dangerous for his party:
"We better be careful we don't get into a Republican situation here where you have somebody who you beat with an ultra lib in the primary, then they can't survive the general [election].
"Let's not fall on our swords here. We've managed to avoid it. It wouldn't be a healthy thing."
Also, Fenn says for some congressional Democrats, it won't necessarily be a bad thing if they can claim some "daylight" between themselves and the president in the midterm elections.
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