The great mystery of Barack Obama remains the extent to which he has ever believed his own rhetoric about a transformative, post-partisan presidency. Was it really possible, I asked early last year, "that Obama had mistaken the U.S. government for the Harvard Law Review, where the emollient balm of his personality persuaded rival factions to reason together?"
No Chicago politician, I decided, could possibly be that naive. And yet here we go again. With Mitt Romney in the rear-view mirror and congressional Republicans more intransigent than ever, Obama has been taking GOP senators out to dinner, while the White House has supposedly made party hardliners the proverbial budgetary offer they can't refuse.
Obama's willingness to swap "reforms" in the way cost-of-living increases to Social Security benefits are calculated — the so-called "chained CPI" — in return for higher revenues from closing tax loopholes, has many liberals howling mad.
And yet Republicans will almost certainly refuse it.
But hold that thought.
"You cannot be a good Democrat and cut Social Security," Arshad Hasan, the executive director of Democracy for America, told the New York Times. The group staged a protest outside the White House. Newly-elected Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) dispatched an e-mail to her supporters arguing that "Our Social Security system is critical to protecting middle-class families, and we cannot allow it to be dismantled inch by inch."
Realistically, "inch by inch" is more apt than "dismantled." According to economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, who strenuously opposes "chained-CPI," "President Obama's proposal would reduce benefits by 0.3 percent for each year after a worker retires. After ten years benefits would be cut by 3.0 percent, after twenty years 6.0 percent, and after 30 years 9.0 percent. Over a twenty year retirement, the average cut would be 3.0 percent."
That's about $36 on the average $1200 Social Security check — noticeable, but hardly crippling. Obama's proposal also comes with complicated formulas for protecting the poorest recipients.
The kind of Washington wise men who wear expensively tailored suits on TV talk shows pronounced themselves well-pleased. On the PBS NewsHour, the lefty/righty team of Mark Shields and David Brooks called Obama "gutsy" and "brave," respectively, for sticking it to greedy geezers.
And yet, as I say, none of this is likely to happen. No sooner had the Obama budget been released than partisans on both sides began showing something less than earnest good faith. The initial GOP response came from the head of the Republicans' House campaign committee, Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, who denounced what he called the president's "shocking attack on seniors."
Speaker John Boehner sang a different tune. No revenue increases, no how, no way was his answer. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell took the same line. Never mind that both men had been urging the White House to adopt "chained CPI" for a couple of years. The GOP commitment to preserving preferential tax rates for the Mitt Romneys and Koch brothers of the nation has achieved the status of an absolute.
It probably didn't matter, but it certainly didn't help that the White House sent out various emissaries hinting that it was all a big head fake anyway.
"Administration officials spent most of Wednesday insisting that chained CPI was the Republicans' idea, not Obama's," POLITICO reported "and that he'd only agree to it if it had these protections and was included in a broader deficit reduction package. 'The offer that is there for Speaker [John Boehner] is not an a la carte menu,' National Economic Council director Gene Sperling told reporters."
Writing in his Washington Post "Wonkblog," boy pundit Ezra Klein explained that the purpose of the White House budget was to expose GOP hypocrisy. "As the White House sees it, there are two possible outcomes to this budget. One is that it actually leads to a grand bargain, either now or in a couple of months. Another is that it proves to the press and the public that Republican intransigence is what's standing in the way of a grand bargain."
That similar mixed motives have been part of every legislative proposal since the dawn of democracy might have made this unnecessary to say. But like a child riding a unicycle, this White House can't seem to quit advertising its own cleverness. Besides, anybody who doesn't get it by now probably can't.
Most Democrats I know tend to agree with former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich. "The only thing the President has accomplished by putting Social Security on the chopping block is to make it more vulnerable to future cuts, and to dampen the enthusiasm of Democrats and many independents for the midterm elections of 2014."
Once again, President Obama appears to be negotiating with himself — like a guy playing a game of seven-card stud in which his hole cards, but nobody else's, are revealed.