With a national audience tuned in, tonight would be as good a time as any for President Obama to draw some lines in the sand and make some clear distinctions between his vision for the future and that of his opposition. The fact that the Republican response to the president’s State of the Union message will be given by Paul Ryan the Social Security and Medicare slasher and privatizer makes it an even more opportune time to point out the differences.
Starting with Social Security, and with clearing up the mixed messaging. Such as:
“The direction of Obama’s speech became apparent over the weekend, when the White House informed Democratic lawmakers and advocates for the elderly that he would not endorse the commission’s recommendation to raise the retirement age and make other cuts to Social Security – the single largest federal program.”
“Administration officials cautioned that Obama is not necessarily taking benefit cuts off the table.”
Say what? Stop with that and borrow from Bob Herbert’s op-ed in today’s New York Times. It might not be all civil and bi-partisany, but it’s the truth.
“If there’s a better government program than Social Security, I’d like to know what it is. It has gone a long way toward eliminating poverty among the elderly. Great numbers of them used to live and die in ghastly, Dickensian conditions of extreme want. Without Social Security today, nearly half of all Americans aged 65 or older would be poor. With it, fewer than 10 percent live in poverty.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities tells us that close to 90 percent of people 65 and older get at least some of their family income from Social Security. For more than half of the elderly, it provides the majority of their income. For many, it is the only income they have.
The demagogues would have the public believe that Social Security is unsustainable, that it is some kind of giant contributor to the federal budget deficits. Nothing could be further from the truth. As the Economic Policy Institute has explained, Social Security “is emphatically not the cause of the federal government’s long-term deficits…
…There is a foreseeable problem with the program’s long-term financing, but it can be fixed with changes that do no harm to its elderly beneficiaries. One obvious step would be to raise the cap on payroll taxes so that wealthy earners shoulder a fairer share of the burden. [What candidate Obama said in 2007].
…The folks who want to raise the retirement age and hack away at benefits for ordinary working Americans are inevitably those who have not the least worry about their own retirement.”
Preserving Social Security is one of those rare instances where the right thing to do and the popular thing to do intersect, even 60% of Republicans don’t want to see cuts. Sixty-five percent of all those surveyed supported lifting the cap on payroll taxes. And talk about rare, Americans are even willing to pay more taxes. An AARP survey last August showed that:
“…half of all non-retired adults said that they would be willing to pay higher payroll taxes to ensure that Social Security will be there for them; 57 percent of adults under 50 would be willing to pay such a tax.”
On the other hand, Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap” proposes cuts starting at 16% and going up to 28% over the long term, as well as diverting “large sums from Social Security to private accounts.”
Making that contrast clear also has strong political advantages for a president with an eye on re-election:
“Social Security offers an opportunity for Democrats to persuade swing voters while at the same time reassuring and pleasing their base…Imagine: Politicians can energize and reinforce their base, while at the same time attracting independents and persuadable members of the other party – using the same issue. It’s like a gift from the gods. All it takes to accept that gift is firmness and clarity.”
Just do it, Mr. President.