Why Obama's Entitlement Compromise Could Fail

Niraj Chokshi
National Journal

When President Obama releases his budget next week, it’s widely expected to include a key compromise: a change to how cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security benefits are calculated. But a new poll highlights just how hard it may be to get lawmakers on board.

The proposal is simple: Tie benefit increases and other changes to a slower and arguably more accurate measure of price inflation, known as "chained CPI." Anonymous White House officials speaking to The New York Times and The Washington Post were careful to portray it as a key Republican demand.

But seniors, a group with a disproportionately high voter turnout, are, unsurprisingly, opposed to the idea, according to a new poll from the giant seniors lobby AARP. Two-thirds of 800 registered voters over the age of 50—66 percent—said they would view their own member of Congress less favorably for backing chained CPI. (The share among only Republicans was 60 percent.) The very idea of using Social Security benefit cuts to reduce the deficit was opposed by 84 percent of the over-50 crowd, according to the poll from AARP, which opposes chained CPI. And 73 percent strongly oppose the idea.

It’s worth noting because seniors turn out to vote in large numbers, especially during midterm elections. During the 2010 midterm, roughly one-fourth of voters were at least 65 years old, according to census data. Just over two-thirds—68 percent—were 45 or older.

And, already, more than half the members of the House Democratic Caucus have made clear their opposition to the provision, writing in a February letter to Obama, "We remain deeply opposed to proposals to reduce Social Security benefits through use of the chained CPI."

Maybe Obama and the Republicans who have been clamoring for entitlement reform can sway seniors and rally the young in a way that overcomes this strong opposition. That won't be easy.