Monday afternoon brought word from the White House that President Obama will not endorse recommendations from his own deficit commission and from Republicans and key moderate lawmakers to raise the retirement age and make significant cuts in social Security and Medicare benefits.
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.
But while the White House promised no move on safety net cuts Tuesday night, they specifically alluded to the recommendations of benefit cuts and a dramatic hike in the retirement age from the deficit commission in warning that nothing is “off the table” as they seek to create a plan for Democrats and Republicans to “work together” and legislate the future of both programs.
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.
Part of the reason for this sudden announcement of what will not be in the speech could be pure political contrast. The Republicans named Rep. Paul Ryan to give the GOP’s rebuttal to Obama on Tuesday. Ryan and other prominent Republicans in Congress have outlined detailed cuts to spending that would include dramatic reductions in funding for Social Security and Medicare, as well as raising the retirement age.
Mixed signals from the Obama White House represent the palpable balancing act for the administration that, in their minds, seek to continue the momentum the president has gained in public opinion since the end of last year.
What is unclear is whether that politically calculated “center” shift will run headlong into a citizenry that has not been shy about voicing its distaste for cuts to government safety nets and other programs potentially slated for the Obama/GOP cutting room floor. In other words, is the political “center” really the center of the country?
A “centrist agenda” of tough talk on spending cuts, “pro-business” policies and governmental responsibility has been promised for the bulk of the State of the Union and has made up much of the tone of Obama’s presidency, especially since last November’s electoral drubbing at the hands of the Republicans. Tuesday’s speech will likely embody in rhetoric and vision what a string of administrative nods to the right (“center”) — former JP Morgan exec/Clinton cabinet member Bill Daley named chief of staff; the signing of an executive order targeting “dumb” regulations — have meant for the physical energy of the White House.
The immediate impact of the White House statement on Social Security and Medicare is that it places the president at odds with the GOP and with some in his own Democratic Party that have shown an appetite for “entitlement” cuts.
The commission’s report did win the support of Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), a key liberal who explicitly called for a debate over raising the retirement age, an idea he called “acceptable to me.” Durbin’s statement raised hopes among balanced-budget advocates that lawmakers could reach agreement at least on a package of reforms to balance the books for Social Security, which is viewed as a much easier task politically than overhauling the tax code or fixing Medicare.
Remember that you will be able to watch live video coverage of the State of the Union (and be able to comment on what you hear) right here on Principled Progressive this Tuesday night.