President Obama’s State of the Union address, to be delivered in two weeks, corresponds with a defining moment in his first term.
During the first half of his term, the president was able to accomplish a lot despite a dysfunctional Senate and the never-ending drone of Fox News and the Tea Party. Progressives expected and wanted more, but we got a watered-down health care bill passed, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell”, equal pay for women, and a lot more.
One issue that has been kept on the back burner is Social Security, and the question is how (or if) this will be addressed in the State of the Union. Republicans want to kill the program and funnel that money to their Wall Street benefactors through privatization of retirement savings. Imagine the impact if they had been successful prior to the Bush stock market crash. The obscene bonuses that the GOP benefactors have reaped would be even larger than they were, while retirees would have lost the only lifeline they had left. Many Democrats have been cowardly silent, afraid to stand up for one of the core principles of the party.
Republicans perpetuate the myth that Social Security is going broke, and they are doing everything possible to make that a reality, including their recent unnecessary cut to payroll contributions. As the accompanying video shows, during the campaign, Barack Obama made some specific and fiscally sensible promises that would retain the current benefits while keeping the fund solvent for decades to come. A progressive increase in the payroll cap is the best way to ensure benefits are there for our children and grandchildren. And a robust Social Security program is one of the best ways to stimulate the economy as retirees would tend to spend rather than save their payouts.
President Obama needs to make a strong statement in his State of the Union speech. He should reiterate his campaign promise by maintaining the current level of benefits, not changing the retirement age, and continuing cost-of-living adjustments (COLA). If he says anything else, the Republican Tea Party machine will hammer him as being the one who cut benefits for millions of Americans. Increasing the payroll cap would be a hard sell, but it’s time that the people making over $250,000 annually do their fair share.
As a matter of disclosure, I am retired and collecting Social Security. But the proposed dismantling of this signature program will not have an impact on me. Even the most draconian of the Republican proposals impacts those ages 55 and under. But as an American, I feel it is more important to provide a safety net for those who come after me than it is to enrich the coffers of corporate CEOs.
President Franklin Roosevelt’s legacy was his ability to save our democracy by extracting us from the Great Depression, the worst economic crisis in our nation’s history. His introduction of Social Security is part of that enduring legacy and has been one of America’s most successful endeavors in her 235 year history. While it’s too early to talk about Barack Obama’s legacy, one important factor was his success in bringing us out of the second worse economic crisis in our history, the Bush Recession. Despite opposition from a party whose determination to bring down the president exceeds its desire to fix the economy, things have turned around, jobs are starting to come back and optimism is starting to reappear. Yet, Obama’s legacy may be more a function of how we treat all Americans, not just the elite. If the president makes a strong statement in support of the program, keeps his campaign promises, and takes the necessary actions to defend Social Security from the GOP’s onslaught, then chances are his legacy will be a positive one. Anything other than wholehearted support would not bode well for his legacy or the nation.