The Nation: Obama's Social Security Dilemma

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President Barack Obama steps off Air Force One upon arrival at Albany International Airport in New York. Obama will deliver the State of the Union address on Tuesday night, and many wonder what position he will take on Social Security. i i

President Barack Obama steps off Air Force One upon arrival at Albany International Airport in New York. Obama will deliver the State of the Union address on Tuesday night, and many wonder what position he will take on Social Security. Mandel Ngan /AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mandel Ngan /AFP/Getty Images
President Barack Obama steps off Air Force One upon arrival at Albany International Airport in New York. Obama will deliver the State of the Union address on Tuesday night, and many wonder what position he will take on Social Security.

President Barack Obama steps off Air Force One upon arrival at Albany International Airport in New York. Obama will deliver the State of the Union address on Tuesday night, and many wonder what position he will take on Social Security.

Mandel Ngan /AFP/Getty Images

John Nichols writes about politics for The Nation magazine as its Washington correspondent. He is a contributing writer for The Progressive and In These Times and the associate editor of the Capital Times, the daily newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin.

The great guessing game in official Washington — and the surrounding punditocracy — this week goes to the question of whether President Obama will use his State of the Union Address to open a discussion about making changes to Social Security that would undermine the retirement guarantee the federal government has maintained for three-quarters of a century.

"Nobody knows what the president is going to do on Social Security," says Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future. "It's a huge question for people like me who are strong supporters of Social Security."

Hickey's right. No one outside the White House knows for certain what the president will say.

But Hickey and others who are involved with the more than 200 groups (including the AFL-CIO, AFSCME, SEIU, National Women's Law Center, USAction and MoveOn.org) that have formed the Strengthen Social Security Campaign know what they fear the president could say.

The co-chairs of Obama's deficit commission have already outlined a plan for reining in the federal deficit by reducing Social Security benefits and schemes for "supplementing" the program, which is a polite language for "privatization." The Republican who will respond to Obama's speech, House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) has a roadmap for going even further.

If Obama is in the mood for some political triangulation, this State of the Union speech — which sets the tone for his 2012 reelection campaign — would be the place to establish his deficit-buster credentials with a jab at Social Security. The problem, of course, is three-fold:

1. Attacking stable programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid buys into the absurd arguments of conservatives who are far more interested in killing off federal programs than fiscal responsibility — let alone societal good. To the extent that Social Security faces any challenges, they can be addressed with modest tweaks to payroll taxes and benefits. Radical restructuring and privatization are unnecessary.

2. Accepting the argument that Social Security must be changed in any substantial way buys into the broader argument that entitlements that serve working Americans are the cause of fiscal instability, as opposed to endless wars, bank bailouts and ever-expanding tax breaks for billionaires.

3. If a Democratic president starts arguing for serious changes in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, that legitimizes Republican positions on entitlement issues and pushes the debate to the right. That creates internal tension within the Democratic Party, not just between the White House and Democrats in Congress but between Democrats in Washington and Democratic governors, legislators and local officials who are struggling to maintain an economic safety net.

These are the sorts of concerns that prompted Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders to write Obama about "worrisome reports" that the president might use the State of the Union address to propose cuts in Social Security. "I hope that information is wrong and that you will stand by your campaign promises to strengthen Social Security," read the letter from Sanders. "I urge you once again to make it clear to the American people that under your watch we will not cut Social Security benefits, raise the retirement age or privatize this critical program."

The message is being echoed by labor unions, senior groups and religious organizations as the State of the Union Address approaches.

"Let's get one thing straight right at the beginning: Social Security is not responsible for the deficit — the program actually has been running surpluses for decades, to the tune of $2.6 trillion total," reads a message from Sojourners, the Christian social justice group that champions programs to address poverty.

"Social Security is based on a promise: If you pay into the system with your payroll taxes, then you earn the right to guaranteed benefits. It is a system that reflects our values as a nation — values also found in scripture. There is no trust more sacred to biblical faith than the injunction to care not only for our families but also for those in need. Social Security is not just for the elderly — it also helps low-income children, widows and widowers, those with disabilities, and children without parents," the Sojourners message continues. "In fact, without the 75-year-old program, nearly half of elderly Americans would be in poverty; with it, only 10 percent are."

On the political side, Progressive Democrats of America has launched a "Keep Your Promise" campaign urging President Obama to use the State of the Union Address to restate past commitments to preserve Social Security.

"Nearly all Americans depend on Social Security at some point in their lives. Many are retirees. But millions are disabled workers, widows and widowers, and children who have lost a loved one. We need to keep the promise alive for all of us," notes PDA. "Fortunately, President Obama has supported our position in the past — no benefit cuts, no raising the retirement age, no cuts in the COLA and no privatization. In a 2007 newspaper editorial, Obama said, 'I do not want to cut benefits or raise the retirement age. I believe there are a number of ways we can make Social Security solvent that do not involve placing these added burdens on our seniors.' "

Along with the Strengthen Social Security Campaign, PDA is circulating a review of Obama's past statements that places them in the context of the current debate.

"In blaming Social Security for the deficit, politicians and pundits like to claim that Social Security is on the brink of bankruptcy. In fact, Social Security currently has a $2.6 trillion surplus. But with an aging population, it will inevitably start to feel the strain. President Obama addressed that, too, in an October 2008 campaign video: 'The best way forward is to first look to adjust the cap on the payroll tax.... Ninety-seven percent of Americans will see absolutely no change in their taxes under my proposal.... What it does allow us to do is to extend the life of Social Security without cutting benefits or raising the retirement age.' And candidate Barack Obama responded to candidate John McCain's suggestion that the way to keep the pressure off of Social Security would be to cut cost-of-living adjustments or raise the retirement age, 'I will not do either.' "

PDA and other groups want to hear those words once more on Tuesday.

"President Obama's State of the Union address will be on January 25," the groups says, while urging progressives to "let him know that he must state in no uncertain terms that he supports Social Security and will veto any threats to its integrity. Tell him you support Social Security and want to see it strengthened, not weakened."

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