By Branko Marcetic
In These Times (4/26/19)
Former Vice President Joe Biden, who officially announced his presidential campaign on Thursday, is positioning himself as the defender of the embattled working class: giving speeches to union audiences, tapping organized labor for early support, walking the Stop & Shop picket lines, and pairing his announcement with a reportedly impending endorsement from the International Association of Firefighters, who have pledged to help him raise money.
However, an episode from the not-so-distant past cuts against this “friend of the working man” image: Biden’s leading role in the Obama administration’s 2011 efforts to slash the deficit by offering Republicans spending cuts to Medicare and Social Security.
“Paul Ryan was correct when he did the tax code. What’s the first thing he decided we needed to go after? Social Security and Medicare. We need to do something about Social Security and Medicare.” — Joe Biden 2018
At the time, the GOP had just finished giving then-President Obama a “shellacking” in the 2010 midterms, with a brand new majority in the House to show for it. Obama was largely focused on three things: raising the debt ceiling to avoid a looming and potentially catastrophic debt default; avoiding a government shutdown; and reaching a “grand bargain” with Republicans over spending, including to so-called entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare that had long been in the crosshairs of the GOP and other deficit hawks.
Obama had been open about his plans to take on Social Security and Medicare, pledging to the staff of the Washington Post only a few days before his 2009 inauguration that he would “spend some political capital on this.” He tasked Biden, a veteran of congressional wheeling and dealing, with spearheading negotiations.
Biden had an ambivalent relationship with government spending. Considered in the 1980s to be one of the Democratic Party’s new “neoliberals,” Biden called then for a spending freeze on Social Security and a higher Social Security retirement age. In 1995, he cast his vote for a balanced budget constitutional amendment, despite his earlier criticisms of it. The choice was, he said, “an imperfect amendment or continued spending.” When he ran for president 12 years later, he again called for the Social Security retirement age to go up.
In journalist Bob Woodward’s 2012 book The Price of Politics, he portrays Biden during Obama’s first term eager to sacrifice Social Security and Medicare for the sake of bipartisan compromise and achieving what would be, in the eyes of Washington, a political victory. …