In an open letter to the president this week, Sen. Bernie Sanders mentioned "worrisome reports" that the president is planning to cut Social Security. These reports don't come out of the blue. They're the culmination of a months-long campaign. The White House has been privately signaling for months that it was leaning in that direction, and now the sky over Washington is darkening with trial balloons floating up from Pennsylvania Avenue.
Before you make such a disastrous and unwarranted move, Mr. President, there's someone I think you should meet. Actually, you may have run into him before: He's a skinny guy with an keen analytical mind and a gift for brilliant oratory. Sound familiar? He ran for president last time around, and he had some very sensible things to say about Social Security:
As you can see in this video, presidential candidate Barack Obama opposed exactly the kind of cuts that are being discussed now by the White House. Candidate Obama pointed out that John McCain had indicated he would cut retirement benefits, either by raising the retirement age or slowing down the cost of living (COLA) adjustments, and responded unequivocally. "Let me be clear," the candidate said. "I will not do either." That statement is admirable for its clarity and forthrightness -- so much so, in fact, that it bears repeating:
"Let me be clear. I will not do either."
The candidate showed a genuine command of the topic, and clearly understood what actuaries and others with specialized knowledge of the topic had been saying for years: that raising the cap on payroll tax deductions -- or perhaps applying it to income above $250,000 -- would remove any long-term concerns about the program's solvency.
In 2008 the public had just weathered a nerve-rattling attempt by Republicans to "privatize" and cut Social Security, and it had survived an administration that was openly run by lobbyists and special interests. Recently their trust in government has been shaken by the appointment of a series of right-leaning business figures to this administration. Candidate Obama promised a different kind of government -- and he pledged to defend Social Security.
Lobbyists have been hard at work trying to destroy Social Security ever since that election, and now they see their opportunity. The Chamber of Commerce, which the president is scheduled to address on Feb. 5, continues to press for Social Security cuts and privatization. And the president's own Deficit Commission was stacked with a number of people in the past or present employ of Pete Peterson, a billionaire who has made Social Security cuts a lifelong passion. Peterson has quite a few people in Washington lobbying for his point of view (some of them have economics degrees).
But that's not who Barack Obama was elected to represent. The president was elected to represent the New Silent Majority, that vast number of Americans who have seen nobody in Washington fighting for them. Three out of four Americans want the government to do more to crack down on Wall Street, so the president's recent appointments won't please them. Are they about to discover that the president's pledge to protect their old-age financial security is being broken?
Our latest polls show that eight out of 10 Americans oppose cutting Social Security to reduce the deficit. That includes 78% of independents, 82% of Republicans, and 74% of Tea Party supporters. That's worth repeating: The president may be on the verge of adopting a position that's too right wing for the Tea Party.
Our polling page also details the Democratic Party's plunging support among seniors. That's a 15-year trend that has accelerated under President Obama (the gap has widened from 8 percent to 21 percent). Wonder how Candidate Barack Obama would have performed with this age group, with his straightforward position on this issue?
It would have seemed unthinkable in 2008 that Democrats could lose their lead over Republicans on the question, "Which party do you trust on Social Security?" Yet the figures are clear: The president and his party have lost the public's trust on this issue. "Trust" is a profound and delicate relationship. If you make an unequivocal promise, and then start equivocating as soon as you're in a position to meet your commitment, trust will fade away like dew on the White House lawn.
But it's not too late. The president can still stand up for Social Security in his State of the Union address, repeating the sensible (and financially accurate) comments of Harry Reid. Reid was absolutely right when he said that the "arithmetic" for Social Security was sound. There are reams of actuarial and economic studies to confirm that comment. Reid was equally correct to say that Social Security cuts are "something that's perpetuated by people who don't like government." (The president may feel that such a comment isn't "civil discourse," but I don't feel it's very civil to frighten people needlessly for political reasons.)
The candidate was right: We can protect Social Security benefits -- which are too low, if anything -- and fix future financial problems (scheduled to occur in 2037) by raising the cap. That would be smart policy and smart politics. It would also send the message that Candidate Obama and President Obama are one and the same person -- a person who keeps his promises.
I'm sure his advisers are telling him that he must cut Social Security, even though it's politically unwise and fiscally unnecessary. Before he does, I hope the president will take the time to listen to Candidate Obama. I think he'll find that he's a pretty impressive guy. We certainly thought so; we elected him.
The president might want to give special attention to the words spoken by that candidate when he declared his intention to run for president, on a winter's day in Springfield just three years ago:
"Too many times, after the election is over, and the confetti is swept away, all those promises fade from memory, and the lobbyists and the special interests move in, and people turn away, disappointed as before, left to struggle on their own."
The president we elected will stand up and defend Social Security in his State of the Union address. We're hoping to see him there.
Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. This post was produced as part of the Strengthen Social Security campaign. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.
He can be reached at "firstname.lastname@example.org."
Website: Eskow and Associates