Social Security and Obama’s 2011 State of the Union Address

There was considerable fear among supporter of Social Security that President Obama would cave in to powerful financial elites that want to see the program privatized or at least cut back in order to divert more retirement savings dollars to Wall Street. 

The signs were everywhere.  He had dangerously reduced employee contributions from 6.2 to 4.2 percent for 2011, a reduction that will be politically difficult to reinstate.  He had loaded the so-called bipartisan committee on the deficit with enemies of Social Security, who predictably issued a report calling for cutting back and reconfiguring its benefits (see “The Attack on Social Security”). 

Up to last night’s delivery of the address, no one was sure what he would say and feared the worst.  The advocacy group Strengthen Social Security was on high alert in case he should announce the initiation of a cutback campaign.

To a collective sigh of relief of Social Security supporters, Obama did not call for a cutback in benefits. He said: 

“To put us on solid ground, we should also find a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations. 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.”

While he has been politically tacking toward the center, he undoubtedly did not want to provoke a complete cutoff of liberal support in his own party; and he was undoubtedly aware that the overwhelming majority of voters oppose cuts to the program’s benefits.

Nevertheless, that his support for protecting Social Security could not and still cannot be taken for granted is worrisome.

On a different note, CNN after the speech broadcast the Republican response that was delivered by Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan.  He is a proponent of Social Security privatization, though he did not mention it last night.  What was unusual was it also broadcast the Tea Party Response, delivered by Minnesota Representative Michelle Bachman, as if we now have three major parties.  The addition of her tilted the discussion further to the right than it already is. 

If CNN had wanted to have more balance, it could have broadcast a response as well by the Progressive Caucus in the House of Representatives or some other spokesperson for progressives.  But that was not a priority since it is more interested in promoting the Tea Party as a significant political force.  Last summer CNN devoted two hours prime time coverage to a Tea Party convention attended by just 700 persons, including Sarah Palin’s keynote address.

James W. Russell

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