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AARP move on Social Security could help avoid a train wreck

By David Gergen, CNN Senior Political Analyst
  • David Gergen says AARP signals willingness to negotiate on Social Security
  • That could be a huge help to those who want to tackle troubled entitlements, he says
  • Fixing entitlements key to fixing the economy, he says

Editor's note: David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four presidents. He is professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter: @david_gergen

Cambridge, Massachusetts (CNN) -- While America retains many underlying strengths, economists increasingly worry that unless we change course, the United States could be heading toward an economic train wreck. For months, the focus has been on the country slipping into a debt crisis. In the past few weeks, concerns have risen sharply about economic growth as well. Two top economists, Larry Summers and Carmen Reinhart, have asked aloud whether we could be stumbling into a "lost decade," a catastrophe that swept Japan in the 1990s.

Is there finally some good news about our direction? Perhaps.

The lead piece in the Wall Street Journal on Friday reported that the American Association for Retired People, the powerful lobbying group, has privately decided to end its opposition to benefit cuts in Social Security. The group issued a statement Friday morning downplaying the story, but the piece was so well reported and it quotes so liberally from John Rother, the veteran AARP policy director, that there does seem to be serious movement inside the organization.

AARP expects Social Security benefit cuts

If so, the willingness of AARP to be at the table for negotiations would greatly strengthen the courage of the Obama administration to engage on the issue at long last and could help the country solve an important piece of the budget riddle that we face. Everyone knows that our entitlement programs, especially Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, are financially unsustainable on their current trajectories. If we are to avoid a debt crisis, reforms are essential. But the politics of entitlement reform are treacherous: Democrats don't want to cut benefits and Republicans don't want to raise taxes. Both will ultimately be needed.

Experience says that Social Security should be much easier to "save" than Medicare. We were last able to overhaul and strengthen Social Security nearly 30 years ago with the Greenspan commission. I was in the White House at the time and saw that it can be done, especially with two keys in place: bipartisan political leadership (in that case, President Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill) and the willingness of AARP to go along.

If the AARP will officially embrace a willingness to support negotiations, that would be a substantial help, as President Obama has signaled an interest in reform as have Republicans. Of course, they are still far apart on the size of tax increases and benefit cuts, as well as raising the retirement age. The AARP is also insistent that Social Security not be wrapped into the large-scale deficit negotiations under way. But the key is to get talks moving. If we can get Social Security done, we could improve prospects for Medicare overhaul. And we need to act soon to do both, as well as look for more tax revenues. We are hurtling toward a train wreck faster than we think.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Gergen.