President Obama’s language on Social Security, as delivered with the State of the Union address, is bound to perplex many observers. After a year of work by his own commission on every aspect of fiscal reform — including the release of a comprehensive Social Security plan — the President tucked Social Security far down into his speech. Even then, specific Social Security fixes were discussed exclusively in terms of what the President would not do, not in terms of the reforms he would support. Clearly this is not how one paves the way for a bipartisan Social Security accord.
Why was the SOTU Social Security language as it was? The President’s remarks can only be fully understood in the context of an ongoing debate taking place between those who are left of center over whether to repair Social Security’s finances at all. Had the President had chosen to, he could have noted the wide bipartisan agreement on several parameters for reform, rather than implying the existence of dangers against which his personal stand was needed. The fact that the White House felt compelled to lend legitimacy to some largely baseless concerns is indicative of the extent to which it is still responding to its left on the issue, and has not yet pivoted to engage those who might participate in a bipartisan Social Security negotiation.
If and when the White House gets serious about Social Security, it will instead need to speak realistically to those in the center as well as those to the right of it, and to elucidate the positive reasons for reform.
(photo credit: White House)