The GOP liked a lot of what it heard in President Obama's address Tuesday night about deficit reduction and personal responsibility.
But Republicans didn't like what they didn't hear: talk about Social Security reform. Obama zipped past the issue with a one-line reference, saying, after a few lines about reforming health care, that "we must also begin a conversation on how to do the same for Social Security, while creating tax-free universal savings accounts for all Americans."
The way to kill an issue in Washington is to suggest we begin to talk about it. Republicans took notice.
After hoping that Obama might be open to some sort of bipartisan reform that would reduce benefits and raise the eligibility age -- and perhaps plant the seeds for private accounts -- Republicans are now less hopeful that he'll come their way.
"I was not happy," Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told the Huffington Post. "That was the one area of his speech I was not happy with. He appears to be backing away from what I thought was an earlier commitment to tackling Social Security reform."
McConnell said that when Obama and his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, had previously spoken to Republicans, they struck a tone that indicated a willingness to work on Social Security. "That was the place that I hoped, based on what both he and the chief of staff had said earlier, we'd be able to move on a bipartisan basis. He kind of brushed over that issue" in his speech, said McConnell.
He said he has noticed a change in the administration's rhetoric over the last few weeks. "They seem to be kind of back-pedaling some," he said.
The back-pedaling McConnell sees comes after several weeks of intense lobbying from liberals concerned that Obama might be opening a door to weakening Social Security. And if the GOP isn't happy, it means the lobbying campaign has had an impact.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) noticed the shift in rhetoric, too. "I think they're getting pressure from the left," he said. "They're just going to have to look some of the unions in the eyes and some of the other groups and say that everything's on the table: benefit recalculation for high income Americans and realistic age adjustments."
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) likewise heard the silence. "I would say from what I'm not hearing is, I'm not hearing a commitment to make Social Security more actuarially sound. They're talking a lot about health care," said Sessions. "Maybe because President Bush tried to do it and was met with a stonewall from the Democrats. They wouldn't even meet him in the room, much less halfway."
Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) said he wished there had been more talk about entitlement reform. "There's more of an opportunity for a Democrat president to deal with entitlements, because Republicans will join a Democrat president," he said. "I'm hoping that they'll get back to it." (Otherwise, said Ensign, the speech was "terrific.")
Graham, who was in Obama's Social Security breakout session on Monday at the White House, wished that the focus Obama put on health care had been given to Social Security. "I was very disappointed it wasn't mentioned more... It's the one entitlement reform that's achievable," he said.
"There were a couple of applause lines: 'We're not going to delay health care reform any longer.' I wish he'd said, 'We're not going to put off Social Security solvency any longer,'" Graham said.
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