The big why
I keep getting asked why I think the President wants to cut the so-called "entitlements." "It just doesn't make sense," they say. "There must be some good reason."
I do not know the answer to that. But he does want to cut them, there can be no doubt. He said he wanted to do it since before he took office in 2009 and has continued to say it ever since. No, he has not been explicit about it very often (although he has upon occasion) and campaigned on a murky fill-in-the-blank phrase "balanced approach to deficit reduction" but it's been out there for the past four years.
So why? Here's what Krugman thinks:
So what’s this about? The answer, I fear, is that Obama is still trying to win over the Serious People, by showing that he’s willing to do what they consider Serious — which just about always means sticking it to the poor and the middle class. The idea is that they will finally drop the false equivalence, and admit that he’s reasonable while the GOP is mean-spirited and crazy.
Obviously, I can't see into his heart, but that makes the most sense to me. I also think this has to do with his original desire to be the trans-partisan president who broke down all the partisan walls and "changed Washington." If his legacy is the signing a private sector style health care plan while cutting "entitlements", lowering the deficit, allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire for those making more than 400k a year, reversing Don't Ask Don't Tell and turning Bush's Global War on Terror into a Global Covert War on Terror, he will have succeeded in mostly pleasing people who hate him and disappointing those who placed their hopes and dreams in his hands --- which by Village standards is the ultimate accomplishment.
The problem is that it will not have changed Washington --- it will merely have changed the Democratic Party. Republicans will never acknowledge him as someone who "met them halfway." A good number of them literally believe he's the anti-Christ. So, they're not going to give him any credit, ever. I think his liberal legacy is probably in bigger trouble (and definitely is if he ever signs a bill to cut Social Security, veterans benefits and Medicare.) But I think he's counting on the Villagers pushing the idea that he did all the "tough" things, jumped on the third rail, passed health care, raised taxes etc --- all the bad medicine these wealthy elites insist the silly rubes need to swallow in order for the country to be healthy again. And I guess they'll be happy to give him that in the first rewrite of history. But it's unlikely it will hold up because the keepers of his legacy will be liberal partisans and this isn't the kind of record that makes them go out of their way to hail him as a Great President.
Keep in mind that while his opponents are clearly nuts, unlike Bill Clinton he is not fighting off mad dog Republicans and a political establishment that are so hostile that they will even detonate the nuclear option of impeachment. Nor is he presiding over a once in a generation economic boom. The love that Democrats have for old Bill is not based on his centrist policies or his ability to make deals with Republicans, although he certainly had and did both. He's remembered fondly by Democrats because he survived a mortal threat to his presidency. It's that old Darrell Hammond SNL sketch of Clinton coming to the podium after the failed Senate vote on impeachment saying "I...am...bulletproof. Next time, best bring kryptonite." Partisans like that sort of thing, unsurprisingly.
I don't think Obama will be remembered that way. He's seen as trying to appease them not beat them. He and Clinton are basically the same animals on a policy level --- but very different politicians. And when it comes to legacy, politics counts for a lot.
Anyway, I don't really know what motivates any politician. All you can do is look at what they say and what they do and judge them on that basis. I just don't think the Very Serious Villagers will care enough to protect President Obama's "tough medicine" legacy beyond his last day in office. His enemies will continue to attack it, of course,it's what they do. And it remains to be seen if his friends will defend it. There's no guarantee.