Herbert Dyer, Jr.

Almost the first words from President Obama during his first press conference since his election victory two weeks ago emphasized not just readiness, but an unseemly eagerness to sit down with Republicans and work out a “Grand Bargain” to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff.” This impending “cliff,” you will recall, is a self-induced “crisis” conceived and agreed to by both Democrats and Republicans last year.

Just as he did last year, without being prompted or asked, the president placed possible cuts to Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare "on the table." Now, after a clear and resounding victory at the polls, the president has declared that his top priority in this second term will be "deficit reduction that includes entitlement changes." There’s that magic word, again, the one that Republicans love to use when describing Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid – “entitlements.” These are the three main government backed programs which benefit poor, working and middle class people. These are programs to which people have contributed from their own, individual and personal labors for most of their working lives, particularly Social Security. The president was not asked about cutting the bloated military and overall defense budget…and he did not deign to mention that possibility on his own.

In response to the president’s apparent willingness to once again “go along to get along,” on Thursday Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) held a meeting in Washington with seniors, the disabled, labor and other grassroots groups determined to shield Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid from the president’s and the Republicans’ grand bargaining process.

In a fiery speech to the group (see attached video), Sanders said the following:

“There are fair ways to reduce the $1 trillion federal deficit and $16 trillion national debt, but balancing the budget on the backs of the elderly, the sick, the children and the poor is not among them. We are here today to send a very loud and very clear message to the leadership in the House, in the Senate and in the White House: Do not cut Social Security; do not cut Medicare, do not cut Medicaid and do not provide more tax breaks to the top 2 percent who are doing phenomenally well and in many cases have never had it so good.”

Also attending that meeting was Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who pointed out that the election “presented the American people with a choice between two very different visions for our economy. And, in that election, the American people spoke very clearly in support of an economic policy that puts the middle class first. When it comes to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, the American people told us to protect and strengthen these programs, not cut them.” Harkin is chairman of the Senate Health, Education, and Labor & Pensions Committee.

Not to be outdone, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) chimed in: “Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are pillars of economic fairness and stability for Americans. Although it is important to reduce our deficit, we should not do so on the backs of our nation's seniors, disabled citizens, and those who are already struggling to stay afloat in this economy. I will fight any efforts to cut benefits under these programs.”

The most salient point about Social Security is that that program has not contributed a single penny to the national deficit. On the contrary, Social Security enjoys a $2.7 trillion surplus and can pay all benefits in full for the next 21 years. No eligible recipient of Social Security benefits has been short-changed or denied since the inception of the program in 1935.

Yet, Republicans never cease in trying to figure out a way to cut annual cost-of-living adjustments in Social Security for seniors, disabled veterans and military retirees. They seem to salivate like Pavlov's dogs at the very mention of "Social Security." They yearn to "privatize" the program so that they and their Wall Street buddies can risk that gi-normous surplus by gambling it all on the stock market or other private "investment" vehicles. Their latest gambit is to switch the manner of calculating cost-of-living adjustments from the rate of inflation to consumer prices, the so-called Consumer Price Index. Such a change, of course, would result in drastic benefit cuts to all Social Security recipients.

As for Medicare and Medicaid benefits, what is the logic behind cutting these when upwards of 50 million Americans have no health insurance whatever and millions more are grossly under-insured? And to top it all off, Congressional Republicans (and an apparently complicit president) are set to raise the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67. The Social Security retirement benefit age has already been raised on a graduated basis.

So, again, the Senators Sanders' and Harkin’s point and question must be addressed. Is this what we voted for? Is this a Grand Bargain or a Grand Betrayal?