Entitlement reform: Why Obama faces tough sell to supporters

A new poll signals a narrow margin for maneuver for a grand bargain on entitlements: Republicans want reforms that cut deficits, but Democrats are wary of any changes not mainly targeted to sustain Medicare and Social Security.

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    President Barack Obama returns from a trip to Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia, on the East Lawn of the White House on Wednesday.
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President Obama is going to have to maneuver carefully on entitlement programs cherished by Democrats to cut the the grand debt deal he seeks.

First, he’s going to have to accede to changes to entitlement programs (chiefly, Medicare) that reduce the government’s long-term debt in order to get congressional Republicans on board for such a plan at all.

But then, he’s going to have to sell the plan to his own supporters as having little to do with debt and deficits at all, if he’s going to avoid a massive backlash.  Polling shows severe resistance to the kinds of entitlement changes that Republicans want.

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That’s the upshot of polling from center-left group Third Way released on Tuesday and a response from the more liberal National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

Obama voters “don’t like that these are being discussed in the context of deficits,” says Jim Kessler, a co-founder of Third Way. “They want it in the discussion about solvency. So the challenge will be that should there be a major agreement that deals with these programs, that they are talked about in the context of fixing these programs, not reaching some magic number on the budget. And that’s a challenge.”

Just how steep is the challenge? Third Way, a group that supports entitlement reform in order to make way for spending on other priorities like education and infrastructure, found that 9 in 10 Obama voters are are worried about the long-term solvency of Medicare and Social Security.

But ask them what they want to do with it and the answer is clear: In focus groups, Third Way found that Democratic and independent voters “indicate that they want these programs fixed to keep them solvent, but not to pay down the debt.”

Reducing the debt through entitlement changes is exactly what Republicans want.
 
“I can say on the part of my members that we fully understand that you can’t save the country until you have entitlement programs that fit the demographics of a changing America in the coming years,” Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky told reporters after a meeting of congressional leaders with the president last week.

And it’s exactly what Americans don’t want, argue a bevy of liberal groups including the National Committee to Protect Social Security and Medicare, who argued in a response to Third Way’s polling that, in fact, the American people have spoken on changes to Medicare and Social Security and have said, in large part, no thanks.

“The American people understand the difference between making reforms to improve Social Security and Medicare’s long-term solvency and cutting benefits to reduce the deficit,” NCPSSM argues. “Using words like ‘fix’ rather than what they really mean, benefit cuts, shows the fix was in on this polling.”

In polling up to and including election day conducted for NCPSSM, Democratic pollster Lake Research Partners found  nearly two in three Americans oppose cutting Medicare benefits for those under 55 (so more than 10 years away from eligibility) and six in 10 are against reducing payments to Medicare providers.

About the only thing Americans are in favor of, according to the Lake poll, are two Democratic ideas: increasing the cap on Social Security payroll taxes, currently set at just over $100,000, and allowing Medicare to negotiate with drug companies for better prices.

Is the president then totally between the rock of Republican desires for entitlement changes and the hard place of public opinion and his liberal allies?

Not entirely, Third Way’s focus groups show that Americans are potentially supportive of a deal with support from both parties, even if the polls are otherwise ominous.

“Our participants were comforted by the idea of a bipartisan solution on Social Security and Medicare because each major party is seen to bring a different set of priorities when it comes to these programs,” Third Way found. “If a fix was bipartisan, Democratic support would signal to them that benefits were being protected, and Republican support would indicate that the solution was fiscally responsible.”

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