The great guessing game in official Washington—and the surrounding punditocracy—this week goes to the question of whether President Obama will use his State of the Union Address to open a discussion about making changes to Social Security that would undermine the retirement guarantee the federal government has maintained for three-quarters of a century.
"Nobody knows what the president is going to do on Social Security," says Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future. "It’s a huge question for people like me who are strong supporters of Social Security."
Hickey’s right. No one outside the White House knows for certain what the president will say.
But Hickey and others who are involved with the more than 200 groups (including the AFL-CIO, AFSCME, SEIU, National Women’s Law Center, USAction and MoveOn.org) that have formed the Strengthen Social Security Campaign know what they fear the president could say.
The co-chairs of Obama’s deficit commission have already outlined a plan for reining in the federal deficit by reducing Social Security benefits and schemes for "supplementing" the program, which is a polite language for "privatization." The Republican who will respond to Obama’s speech, House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, has a roadmap for going even further.
If Obama is in the mood for some political triangulation, this State of the Union speech—which sets the tone for his 2012 reelection campaign—would be the place to establish his deficit-buster credentials with a jab at Social Security. The problem, of course, is three-fold:
1. Attacking stable programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid buys into the absurd arguments of conservatives who are far more interested in killing off federal programs than fiscal responsibility—let alone societal good. To the extent that Social Security faces any challenges, they can be addressed with modest tweaks to payroll taxes and benefits. Radical restructuring and privatization are unnecessary.
2. Accepting the argument that Social Security must be changed in any substantial way buys into the broader argument that entitlements that serve working Americans are the cause of fiscal instability, as opposed to endless wars, bank bailouts and ever-expanding tax breaks for billionaires.
3. If a Democratic president starts arguing for serious changes in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, that legitimizes Republican positions on entitlement issues and pushes the debate to the right. That creates internal tension within the Democratic Party, not just between the White House and Democrats in Congress but between Democrats in Washington and Democratic governors, legislators and local officials who are struggling to maintain an economic safety net.