Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Happy SOTU Day! (or, Obama on Social Security)

I have no doubt that Obama will present a largely centrist policy agenda in his State of the Union address tonight.

But I also hope that he will use the occasion to defend the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, one of the great accomplishments of his presidency so far (even if it's not as progressive as it ought to be), after the Republican House voted to repeal it last week, and that, on issues where he might actually get something done over the next two years, such as immigration reform and deficit reduction, he presents a vision that Democrats can get behind and ultimately use for electoral gain, a vision that at the very least doesn't further alienate progressives.

On the latter at least, deficit reduction, it seems we may get just that:

President Obama has decided not to endorse his deficit commission's recommendation to raise the retirement age, and otherwise reduce Social Security benefits, in Tuesday's State of the Union address, cheering liberals and drawing a stark line between the White House and key Republicans in Congress.

Over the weekend, the White House informed Democratic lawmakers and advocates for seniors that Obama will emphasize the need to reduce record deficits in the speech, but that he will not call for reducing spending on Social Security -- the single largest federal program -- as part of that effort.


Administration officials said Obama is unlikely to specifically endorse any of the deficit commission's recommendations in the speech, but cautioned that he is unlikely to rule them off the table, either. On Social Security, for example, he is likely to urge lawmakers to work together to make the program solvent, without going into details, according to congressional sources.

Ah, so there's the out. It's sort of like how Obama was for the public option before he wasn't really for it or against it and it died. Or how he was against extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy until he cut a deal to allow just that. Now he's against cuts to Social Security, or so he will say tonight, but, well, who knows? He may just allow cuts to be made so as to win points somewhere else.

Oh, and by the way. Social Security is in good shape. The system isn't about to go bankrupt, as Bush alleged in his 2005 SOTU, and, as Paul Krugman has noted time and time again, there is no crisis. That's just a myth perpetuated by the right, by conservatives who want to privatize it and Republicans who want to cut it so that they can have their tax cuts.

If you really want to balance the budget, as Obama apparently does (even at this time of ongoing economic uncertainty, when frugality is hardly what is called for), the best thing to do is to return to the sensible tax levels of the Clinton era, particularly for the wealthy, and to cut military spending. It is not to target a successful program designed to help those who desperately need help.

But of course the poor and the desperate don't have nearly the political clout the rich do, and Obama, it seems, despite whatever he says tonight, will likely appeal directly to the centrist obsession with fiscal conservatism as this issue plays out over the next couple of years, leading up to the 2012 election.

Oh, I have high hopes that he says all the right things tonight, but he's already signalled what his priorities are, and what his politics are, and there's no reason to think that he will actually advance anything even resembling a progressive vision for America, on Social Security or anything else -- at least until the campaign, when he'll need to win some of us back.

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