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 election setbacks for Democrats.
Explicitly acknowledging his 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 defense of Social Security—along with 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 midterm 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, healthcare spending, and spending through tax breaks and loopholes. This means further reducing healthcare costs, including programs like Medicare and Medicaid, which are the single biggest contributor to our long-term deficit..”
AARP chief 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 healthcare 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 that form key constituencies within his political base. 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.
The president’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.