The Story Behind That Scrapped White House Social Security Task Force

February 23, 2009 8:00 a.m.

The New York Times reports this morning that the White House had abandoned plans to unveil a Social Security “task force” at today’s fiscal summit, raising the question of whether the Obama administration is ready to conduct separate debate over the long-term health of Social Security and Medicare — or whether the tired canard of “dangerous entitlement spending” will continue to rule the political roost.

One liberal activist who weighed in against the proposed task force told me that some within the administration are ready to attempt “one more fix” for Social Security, thinking of the 70-year-old benefits program “as an equation to be solved” and the Obama team as the mathematicians on the case.“We just think the timing is terrible” to formally open such a Social Security task force now, this activist added. “At a time when the economy is terrible and people are losing their 401(k)s, you want people to feel more comfortable about their retirement.”

Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (and a TPMCafe contributor), was another influential voice on the left urging Obama aides to use the White House bully pulpit on other issues and leave aside Social Security.

“I certainly let them know that I thought it would be a really bad idea” to create any task force, Baker told me. “Most of us took the position that we were trying to use whatever contacts we had [to raise concerns], working from the position that we were expecting to be working with the Obama administration.”

The message sent to the White House by progressives, as Baker put it, was: “We’re going to have to oppose you on this. It’s a waste of political capital – why would you do it?”

In the end, of course, the task force was put on the back burner and the mantra of “health reform is entitlement reform” became the order of the day, thanks in large part to the work of White House budget chief Peter Orszag.

But while many progressives are eager to stop lumping Social Security and Medicare together, others view reluctance to address Social Security as giving in to pre-emptive fears that conservatives would hijack the process to promote privatization.

“Wouldn’t it be a progressive achievement to lock Social Security in for everybody alive today and their children?” one person close to the issue asked me. “Why wouldn’t we do it? [As for] how you do it, there will be a long discussion with stakeholders to get it done.”

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