Like a lot of former Obama voters, I've had my issues with the president. Sure, it helped when he sang that Al Green song at the Apollo Theater last week. (Good job, Mr. President! Good pitch and an appropriately understated delivery.)
But in a time of uncertainty people are looking for certitude. In a time of great battles people are looking for strength. They don't just need to hear the words when they listen to their leaders. They need to feel the music.
The State of the Union address is scheduled for this Tuesday night. The president can go a lot further toward winning over voters who are disappointed, doubtful, or just unenthusiastic, if he chooses an issue that's vitally important to them and offers a clear, strong and unequivocal defense.
Social Security is the ideal issue. It's one of many, according to polls, where both parties are out of step with voters. After seeing their savings, pension plans, and housing values destroyed, people are frightened about their retirement security. They don't hear anybody in Washington offering to protect their benefits.
And to borrow a phrase from Rev. Al, they're tired of being alone.
Last year the president narrowly averted political disaster in his State of the Union address. He bowed to outside pressure and abandoned an ill-conceived plan to propose cutting Social Security benefits and a partial lifting of cap on payroll taxes that fund them. But a form letter from the White House illustrates the administration's still-squishy position on both Social Security and Medicare.
The White House is clearly preparing for an economically-themed, pro-99 percent speech this week. A chart is clearly visible on its SOTU website, although its still just a preview, showing the difference in pay between the average worker and the average CEO. In a short video, Presidential advisor David Plouffe tells viewers that charts and other information will be available there after the speech.
As President Obama continues his electoral-year pivot toward populism, Tuesday night's offers the perfect chance for a home run. There's no better way for the president to start the year than with a vigorous, unambiguous defense of Social Security -- and Medicare, too.
Poll after poll has shown that Americans -- including most Republican voters and Tea Party members -- oppose cutting Social Security to balance the Federal deficit. So it's a good thing that the President scrubbed that proposal from last January's SOTU. Republicans would have rejected it and then spent the next two years running as the defenders of Social Security, much the same way they ran as defenders of Medicare in 2010.
(Sure, that's insanely hypocritical from the party of the radical Ryan proposal to dismantle Medicare. But that's never stopped them before, and it won't stop them this year either.)
Yet for some reason -- perhaps because they believe Republicans will have a change of heart and cut a deal on Social Security, and don't realize how hated such a deal would be -- the president and his team continue to equivocate on Social Security. They continue to say only that they won't "slash" the program -- although the proposals they've considered are pretty slashing for recipients.
A recent form letter, received by a friend who expressed concern about proposed Social Security cuts, shows that the equivocation and evasion hasn't stopped. "Dear Friend," the letter said, "I have heard from many Americans who are concerned about their retirement savings... Retiring with dignity is a promise we must keep to all Americans, and I am working hard to strengthen our retirement system."
The letter goes on to say:
That is why I am committed to protecting Social Security and addressing Americans' concerns. Social Security cannot be subjected to risky privatization plans because the future of hard-working Americans should not be left to the fluctuations of financial markets.
To better secure their retirement and prepare for unforeseen circumstances, Americans must also save for their future in other ways. We are laying the foundation for all individuals to participate in workplace retirement accounts. Employees would be automatically enrolled in pension plans and could opt out if they choose. Simple and automatic enrollment makes it easier for people to plan for retirement. This would assist the 75 million working Americans -- about half the workforce -- who lack access to retirement plans through their employers...
Thank you, again, for writing.
My friend's reaction wasn't what they were looking for. She was furious. She hadn't written to express her concern about her "retirement savings," but to ask for the President's reassurance that he won't cut Social Security.
The GOP privatization plan is off the table and she knows it. And the paragraph about opt-out pension plans confused her. "Isn't that the Republican privatization plan?" she asked.
She's paid her Social Security contributions all her life, and she was asking if her benefits would be there when she retired. Instead she felt she'd gotten the runaround, with an evasive run of double-talk, with a little lecture about her own moral failings ("Americans must also save ...") thrown in for good measure.
This is a problem but it can be fixed, and the State of the Union is the perfect place to do it. People are anxious to hear a rigorous defense of Social Security and Medicare. Here's why this issue is a winner for the President:
Social Security isn't in danger. He can explain why during Tuesday's speech, and then back it up with information on graphics on his SOTU website. He can use the work of Ronald Reagan's chief Social Security actuary to reinforce his point.
The president can push his favored bipartisanship theme, but this time he'll have a truly bipartisan position. Most Republicans want Social Security preserved. He can link to this report, prepared by a bipartisan panel of experts under Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, to rebut the most common (and completely false) anti-Social Security talking points. (They were around in 1958, and in 1935 too.)
President Obama can also use this as an opportunity reinforce the fact that government has a vital role to play in our society, and that there are some things it can do better than private businesses can. He can point to the military, the police, public health, education -- and to private benefits like Medicare and Social Security.
Soul of a New Machine
The administration's SOTU website displays its mastery of form, which now needs to be matched by a mastery of content. That means simple, direct and clear statements like "We will not tolerate any cut to Social Security -- not on my watch." And "we won't let them be cut directly -- or indirectly, by raising the retirement age or lowering the already-inadequate cost of living increases people receive."
The president's team has a truly impressive mastery of political technology. Now they need to infuse that technology with a simple, forceful message that resonates in the heart.
David Plouffe tells viewers that the speech will be about a government that "works for the middle class," around the themes of "a fair share, a fair shake, and fair play." Social Security is a perfect fit for that message:
A "fair share" is asking the wealthy to pay a more proportional contribution for Social Security and Medicare.
A "fair shake" means not cutting benefits for people who have worked all their lives.
And "fair play" means not punishing the rest of the nation because a radical upward distribution of income has created an easily fixed long-term imbalance in Social Security.
The president has a great opportunity on Tuesday night. By defending Social Security -- and making a firm commitment to ensuring that benefits aren't cut -- he can tell voters that, in Al Green's words, "You ought to be with me."
If he does, come November they'll be more likely to say "Let's Stay Together."
(Now it's time for Rev. Al -- in his decidedly pre-reverend days -- to remind us what we're all really looking for.)
This post was produced as part of the Strengthen Social Security campaign.