Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called out President Barack Obama for softening the commitment he made during the 2008 campaign to protect Social Security from cuts, and for aligning himself with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney on the entitlement issue during the first presidential debate.
"Four years ago when Obama ran against John McCain, he was very clear," Sanders told The Huffington Post on Tuesday. "And what he said in so many words is, 'John McCain will cut your Social Security, I will not.'"
Sanders noted that President Obama's tenor has changed, and that he has been increasingly vague about whether or not he would accept cuts to Social Security as part of a larger agreement with congressional Republicans to avoid the looming "fiscal cliff" of the sequestration measures that will take effect at the beginning of next year. "To the best of my knowledge, the president has not told us that he will not cut Social Security," Sanders said.
It has been reported that during the summer of 2011, President Obama was in fact willing to accept cuts to Social Security (also Medicare and Medicaid) in exchange for tax increases on the wealthy, as part of a proposed "grand bargain" with Republicans to raise the debt ceiling.
The Vermont Senator also said that the first presidential debate, in which Obama said he and Romney had a similar position on Social Security, reinforced his fears that the program would be subject to cuts.
Cuts could come in the form of a change to how cost of living adjustments are calculated, by switching to the so-called chained CPI, which grows at a slower rate than the current calculation. A report this month by AARP cautioned against such an approach.
"Changing the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) would have a detrimental impact on the economic wellbeing of older and disabled Americans and their family members who receive benefits from Social Security," the report said.
Sanders, who founded the Senate's Defend Social Security Caucus and currently serves as its chairman, has launched a petition and is leading a national coalition of various interest groups whose mission is to reject legislative efforts to scale back benefits for seniors.
"The response from the grassroots is off the charts," said Alex Lawson, Executive Director of Social Security Works, a group which has signed onto Sanders' petition. "People understand what is at stake, and they are saying loudly and clearly, 'No cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits and absolutely no tax cuts for the richest 2 percent.'"
Ilya Sheyman, Campaign Director at MoveOn.org, added, "Figuring out a real program for jobs, instead of job-killing cuts, is something Congress should carefully focus on, even if it requires working into January or beyond."
Sanders has also circulated a letter to his Senate colleagues, which 29 of them have signed, emphasizing that Social Security is not responsible for the budget deficit and that cuts to the program for current or future beneficiaries should not be part of any deficit reduction package.
"Contrary to some claims, Social Security is not the cause of our nation's deficit problem. Not only does the program operate independently, but it is prohibited from borrowing," part of the letter reads. "Even though Social Security operates in a fiscally responsible manner, some still advocate deep benefit cuts and seem convinced that Social Security hands out lavish welfare checks. But Social Security is not welfare. Seniors earned their benefits by working hard and paying into the system."
Sanders pointed out that despite popular opposition to cutting entitlement programs, the discussion inside the beltway has reflected a dramatically different tone. He describes it as, "'Yes, let's lower the tax rates for the wealthiest people in this country, the largest corporations, and let's cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.'" The tone of the debate, he says, "is way out of touch with where the American people are."
Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO and a Sanders ally, expressed a similar concern in a Politico op-ed Tuesday night. "The grand bargain crowd says we have to cut benefits to lower the deficit," Trumka wrote. "Do you think the American people really want to cut benefits for Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare in exchange for lowering the top tax rate for the richest Americans? I don't think so."
Sanders identified Peter Peterson as one of the more powerful proponents of entitlement cuts influencing the debate in Washington. Peterson is a billionaire private equity mogul who has personally contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, a group which has set out to brand Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as areas in need of dramatic cuts, according to a Huffington Post report.
Sanders argued that wealthy individuals like Peterson provide financial cover for members of Congress who vote for unpopular cuts to entitlement programs. "What he's going to say to all the politicians is, 'Look, the American people want the rich to pay more in taxes, they don't want to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. I want you to vote to cut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and not tax the rich. And when you get into political pressure, we'll be there to back you up.'"
"This is how corrupt Washington has become," Sanders added. "Billionaires are giving very strong support to elected officials who will do exactly the opposite of what the American people want. I think that's a pretty pathetic situation."
Evie Watt, press secretary for the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, told HuffPost, "Senator Sanders' characterization of Pete is completely false. Pete has repeatedly made clear that he wants to see entitlement programs preserved and protected for the next generation, and that any reform to ensure these programs remain sustainable should be gradual and progressive, and recognize the critical role these programs play. He has also stated in many different speeches, interviews and articles that he believes revenue increases should be part of any plan to address our fiscal problems, and that the wealthy should be asked to pay more."
Sanders acknowledged that cuts to Social Security would be even more likely in a Romney administration, but reminding President Obama of his prior opposition to benefit reductions remains the focus of his efforts.
"We're doing our best right now to make sure that the president comes on board the position he had four years ago: that Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit and that Social Security should not be cut."
A request to the White House for comment was not immediately returned.
This post has been updated with comment from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation.