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.
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.
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 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 twenty-first-century projects such as high-speed rail and the development of national wireless networks.
Appealing for perhaps a few less applause lines than presidents usually seek in State of the Union addresses, Obama spoke as a “one nation” president with a technocratic agenda to increase American competitiveness. While acknowledging divisions, he suggested that some kind of unity might be achieved behind a “winning the future” agenda.
“With their votes, the American people determined that governing will now be a shared responsibility between parties. New laws will only pass with support from Democrats and Republicans. We will move forward together, or not at all—for the challenges we face are bigger than party, and bigger than politics,” Obama told the Congress.
“At stake right now is not who wins the next election—after all, we just had an election,” Obama will continue, “At stake is whether new jobs and industries take root in this country, or somewhere else. It’s whether the hard work and industry of our people is rewarded. It’s whether we sustain the leadership that has made America not just a place on a map, but a light to the world. We are poised for progress. Two years after the worst recession most of us have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again.
“But we have never measured progress by these yardsticks alone. We measure progress by the success of our people. By the jobs they can find and the quality of life those jobs offer. By the prospects of a small business owner who dreams of turning a good idea into a thriving enterprise. By the opportunities for a better life that we pass on to our children. That’s the project the American people want us to work on. Together.”
The call to common purpose was central to Obama’s appeal for at least some additional infrastructure and education investment.
Clearly aware that he will face fights with House Republicans to secure that additional spending, however, Obama framed the activist elements of his agenda as necessary investments in the future.
To do this, he referenced the investments in scientific research and the space program made by Americans in the 1950s and 1960s—and the great leaps forward that extended from them.
“Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik¸ we had no idea how we’d beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t there yet. NASA didn’t even exist,” Obama will say. “But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.”
“This,” Obama will declare, “is our generation’s Sputnik moment.”
The reference to the1950s was telling.
This was not the Franklin Roosevelt speech progressives longed to hear.
This was not the Ronald Reagan speech conservatives demanded to hear.
This was the Dwight Eisenhower speech that comes when America is divided but still has work to do: sober and centrist, managerial rather than visionary. Ike would probably have approved—even if he might have preferred a tougher line on the military-industrial complex.
Maybe next year.
Then again, considering the political calendar that so weighs on the president, maybe not.