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Richard (RJ) Eskow Headshot

No Social Security Cuts in the State of the Union?

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Lori Montgomery of the Washington Post just wrote an article entitled "Obama won't endorse raising retirement age or reducing Social Security benefits," where she reports that the State of the Union speech will not include any suggestions for cutting retirement benefits.

The Wall Street Journal reported the story differently, saying that cuts will not be spelled out but will be hinted at: "White House officials... have assured Democratic lawmakers that the president will not explicitly call for cuts in Social Security benefits, though he will say changes are needed to put the program on a solid fiscal footing." The Journal adds: "Mr. Obama will call on both parties to be prepared to put everything on the table."

Even if the Journal's darker account is more accurate, the executioner's hand has been stayed for the moment. That's a victory for the American people, who oppose these cuts by large majorities across the political spectrum.

It's a victory for sound economic thinking. Social Security doesn't contribute to the deficit, and retirement benefits get recirculated into the general economy. That contributes to job creation and growth.

And it's a victory for progressives who mobilized and acted quickly to forestall any such move by the president in this speech, as had been rumored for quite some time.

It could also be a political victory for Democrats, if the Post depiction is accurate. Dems would then be able, in Lori Montgomery's words, to "draw a stark line between the White House and key Republicans in Congress."

There's a clear lesson to be drawn, if these reports are accurate: Activism still works. Leaders from leaders of MoveOn, Campaign for America's Future, Strengthen Social Security Campaign, and National Committee to Protect Social Security and Medicare reported today than more than one million Americans have told the White House and Congress that they don't want cuts to Social Security. The Democratic Progressive Caucus in Congress, led by Reps. Keith Ellison and Raul Grijalva, have been instrumental in defending retirement benefits.

But, even if the Post's more positive report is accurate, these are only temporary victories. A battle will have been won, but the war will go on. Billionaire Pete Peterson and other financial interests will continue to spend enormous sums of money to convince reporters and politicians that Social Security must be cut, even though raising the payroll tax cap is a simpler fix -- and a financial transactions tax could be used to increase benefits, which would create jobs and economic growth.

The White House will continue to face enormous pressure to agree to these cuts, from both inside and outside the administration. It was just reported, for example, that Democratic Senator Mark Warner and Republican Saxby Chambliss plan to introduce a bill that would raise the retirement age to 69.

If the president doesn't explicitly call for benefit cuts, the moment of reckoning has been deferred. But unless he explicitly rejects these cuts, which no report suggests he will do, he could still choose to support them as part of a larger deal -- or as a capitulation to another Republican hostage-taking strategy, where they threaten to shut government down if their demands aren't met.

Social Security's defenders will need to redouble their efforts in the coming weeks and months. They'll need to keep their message heard over the richly-funded din of misinformation from the Peterson crowd. Politicians who are being assaulted with high-decibel spin will need to hear the quieter, more persistent voice of the great American majority. And they'll need to keep correcting the misinfomation being generated as a result of the well-funded but inaccurate ideas that have taken root in the media sphere.

Case in point: In her otherwise informative report, Lori Montgomery writes 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." That ellipsis is misleading, and might suggest to readers that the president's leaving the biggest problem unsolved. But Social Security is forbidden by law from contributing to the deficit, and readers should understand that.

The Post article also leaves the impression that defending Social Security benefits is a "liberal" position. 68% of voters -- and 60% of Republicans -- believe we should not cut Social Security or Medicare to reduce the deficit. And those cuts aren't needed for the program's future, if the payroll tax cap is raised. That options preferred by 65% of voters. (More on the polling results here.) It's not just a "liberal" position. It's an American position.

This news, if true, is at the very least a temporary victory for all concerned, one that gives the public more time to make its voice heard on Social Security. That's good news. But to paraphrase songwriter and labor leader Joe Hill: Don't celebrate, organize.

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 "rjeskow@ourfuture.org."

Website: Eskow and Associates