SOTU: Obama Makes a Muscular Defense of Social Security, But Aligns with Wall St. on Exporting Our Jobs
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
President Obama used his second State of the Union Address to deliver a muscular defense of Social Security, the crown jewel program of the New Deal that progressives had feared was under threat as the president triangulated to the right following November, 2010, election setbacks for Democrats.
Explicitly acknowledging disagreement with key recommendations made by his own bipartisan Fiscal Commission, Obama told the assembled members of Congress that it was necessary to "find a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations. And we must do it without putting at risk current retirees, the most vulnerable, or people with disabilities; without slashing benefits for future generations; and without subjecting Americans’ guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market."
Obama's defenses of Social Security – along his willingness to outline plans for at least some new stimulus spending -- represents a victory of sorts for progressives who campaigned ardently in recent weeks to avert a sharp turn to the right by a president who was shaken by November, 2010, election setbacks for Democrats.
But, while Obama was strong on Social Security, and more supportive of public investment to create jobs than some had been anticipated, he sent such mixed signals about defending Medicare and Medicaid that the speech drew a rebuke from the American Association of Retired People.
Obama said: “The bipartisan Fiscal Commission I created last year made this crystal clear. I don’t agree with all their proposals, but they made important progress. And their conclusion is that the only way to tackle our deficit is to cut excessive spending wherever we find it – in domestic spending, defense spending, health care spending, and spending through tax breaks and loopholes. This means further reducing health care costs, including programs like Medicare and Medicaid, which are the single biggest contributor to our long-term deficit..”
AARP’s A. Barry Rand, responded: "We're pleased to hear the president acknowledge the vital importance of Social Security and the need to protect this lifeline for future generations, but we are disappointed that he, like his fiscal commission did last late last year, seeks to address this bedrock of financial security in the context of reducing a deficit it didn't cause. Moreover, any attempt to control spending in Medicare and Medicaid without addressing the causes of skyrocketing costs throughout the health care system will not reduce these costs, but rather shift them on to the backs of people of all ages and generations.”
Obama also voiced support for free-trade policies that have been ardently opposed by unions, environmental groups and human rights campaigners. And he veered to the right with embraces of corporate-backed initiatives to limit lawsuits, to dumb down federal regulations and to freeze discretionary spending in a way that threatens domestic programs while sparing the Pentagon from the sharpest cuts.
Obama's ably-delivered and generally well-received speech illustrated the new balancing act that he seeks to perform in the aftermath of election results that gave control of the House to conservative Republicans and significantly reduced the Democratic majority in the Senate.
As expected, Obama echoed Republican rhetoric about deficits and spending cuts so frequently that, at times, his State of the Union Address sounded more like that of a mainstream Republican trying to appeal to Tea Party voters than a progressive Democrat.
As such, this was not a satisfyingly progressive State of the Union Address.
It was, however, far less deferent to conservative demands than had been predicted just a few days ago.
What changed? With his approval rating surging into the mid-50s in recent days – at least in part because of his unifying response to the Tucson shootings, which the president referenced at the opening of Tuesday’s address to the Congress – Obama has more political capital than he did in the weeks after the election .And he used it to defend Social Security -- rather then embrace calls for slashing benefits or experimenting with privatization – and to renew commitments to classic infrastructure investments in roads, bridges and transit, as well as 21st century projects such as high-speed rail and the development of national wireless networks.