Briefing room word games: What's a 'slash' versus a 'cut' in Social Security?

In the White House briefing room, the meaning of words sometimes hangs on a hand gesture. As in the exchange Thursday with Jay Carney over what could happen to Social Security benefits.

Charles Dharapak/AP
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney briefs reporters in the White House in Washington, Tuesday. White House press questions often require stubborn tenacity to get a definitive answer.

White House press briefings are often about dancing on the head of a pin. As in, asking the same question over and over until the press secretary says something quotable. Or slicing and dicing words so fine that they lose meaning. Or are reduced to hand gestures.

That’s what happened Thursday with White House press secretary Jay Carney. The session began with President Obama himself, who imparted encouraging words about the deficit-reduction talks he had just had with bipartisan congressional leaders.

“It was a very constructive meeting,” Mr. Obama said. “People were frank.”

Sometimes “frank” means there was yelling, but if that was the case, Obama didn’t let on. At least both sides are still on speaking terms. Staffs will keep talking through the weekend, and then the principals gather again on Sunday. So far so good.

Then it was Mr. Carney’s turn. He made clear right up top that he wasn’t going to reveal any of the content or specifics of the meeting.

But then there was this little issue of the Washington Post story posted Wednesday night that reported Obama was offering “for the first time ... to tackle the rising cost of Social Security.” This had set off alarm bells among Obama’s progressive base, and led Carney to put out a statement denying there was anything new in the White House’s position on Social Security.

The denials continued on Thursday. And that’s where the verbal dancing got particularly entertaining. Back in January, in his State of the Union address, the president “talked about his openness to doing things to strengthen Social Security, things that would not slash benefits,” Carney said.

Carney’s statement appeared, however, to leave open the possibility that the White House could accept some kind of benefit cut.

So, a reporter asked, what does “slash” mean?

“Haven’t you got, like, a dictionary app on your iPhone?” Carney replied.

Q: Well, it’s a word that you use instead of “cut.”

Carney: “Slash” is, I think, quite clear. It’s slash. It’s like that. (Carney makes a slashing motion with his hand.) It’s a significant whack.

Q: So it means a significant …

Carney: I’m not going to put a numerical figure on it.

Q: So it means a significant cut.

Carney: I think slashing is a pretty sharp, direct …

Q: It’s not the same thing as cutting – the point is, it’s not the same thing as “cut.”

Carney: It’s slash. (Laughter.) And I don’t mean the guitarist. (Laughter.)

Q: A pledge to not slash benefits is not the same thing as a pledge to not cut benefits.

Carney: I’m not – again, we’re talking about a policy enunciated by the president back in January, and that is …

Q: This is a diction you guys have chosen.

Carney: No, no, I get that, and we did choose it, and the president used it. But I’m not here to negotiate the semantics …

Q: Just so everybody understands – just so everybody understands, when you say “slash,” you don’t mean “cut.”

Carney: We have said that to address the long-term solvency of the problem – of the program, because this is not an issue that drives short- or medium-term deficits, that we would look – the president is interested in looking at ways to strengthen the program and enhance its long-term solvency that protects the integrity of the program and doesn’t slash benefits.

Q: Which is not the same thing as not cutting benefits.

Opponents of change to Social Security don’t seem reassured.

“At a time when retirement security remains an elusive goal for most Americans, cuts to Social Security benefits – in whatever form they take – should not be on the table,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement late Thursday afternoon.

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