Dear President Obama:
On Tuesday, January 12, when you deliver your final State of the Union address, you will have a tremendous opportunity to establish a profound legacy regarding one of the nation's most important domestic programs -- Social Security. You simply have to pull together the strands of a number of concerns you have voiced during your presidency, recognize Social Security as the solution that it is, and boldly join the growing chorus calling for its expansion.
Your announced commitment to expanding Social Security will have a major impact. Your legacy on the issue will be established not by the attainment of legislation but by your bold leadership in proposing it.
It is no accident that so many Americans believe that they will never receive the Social Security benefits they have earned. A decades-long, billionaire-funded campaign to undermine confidence in Social Security's future has succeeded. Though this campaign has not yet succeeded in cutting cash benefits, it has undermined one important Social Security benefit. Social Security is supposed to provide, as its name suggests, the intangible benefit of security, peace of mind. But polls show that too many Americans believe, against all evidence, that Social Security is unaffordable as a result of an aging population and so will not be there for them in the future.
If you propose to expand Social Security, that action demonstrates to the entire nation that the question of whether to expand Social Security, keep benefits at their current level but fully fund them, or cut those benefits is a matter of values and choice.
As the wealthiest nation in the world at the wealthiest moment in our history, not only can we afford the current Social Security program; we can afford a vastly expanded program. By proposing to expand Social Security while requiring the wealthiest among us to pay their fair share, your action alone would put the lie to the claim that Social Security is unaffordable and so won't be there in the future.
Forty-three Senators and 107 House members (a majority of the Democratic caucus) are on record favoring expanding benefits. Among Democratic presidential candidates, both Senator Bernie Sanders and Governor Martin O'Malley have comprehensive plans for both targeted and across-the-board expansions of Social Security benefits; Secretary Hillary Clinton supports some targeted expansion of benefits.
But the imprimatur of a sitting president is what is needed to reassure millions of Americans who have bought the lie that Social Security won't be there for them.
Your championing an expansion proposal fits well with other policies you have championed to address challenges you have identified. You have spoken eloquently about the nation's looming retirement income crisis. In your remarks at the 2015 White House Conference on Aging, for example, you cogently explained:
"[M]ost workers don't have a traditional pension -- what we used to understand as a defined benefit pension where you were guaranteed a certain amount every year once you retired. A Social Security check on its own oftentimes is not enough. And... a lot of people don't have any kind of retirement account at all."
Because Social Security is the most universal, efficient, secure, and fair source of retirement income in the nation, expanding it to address our nation's looming retirement income crisis is the obvious solution. The New York Times, in a recent editorial, provided compelling figures regarding just how essential Social Security is for a secure retirement, and concluded that "there's mounting evidence that Social Security, which has become ever more important in retirement, needs to be expanded."
You have also spoken about the nation's perilous and growing income and wealth inequality. In a 2013 speech, you proclaimed that "a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility ... is the defining challenge of our time." In the 1920's, when the nation last faced this "defining challenge," it created the Social Security program which has done so much to build our middle class. Expanding Social Security would slow the growth, if not reverse, today's income inequality,
Other leaders in your Party - the 43 Senators, 107 House members and three presidential candidates -- recognize that expanding Social Security is a solution to these challenges, as well. The Congressional Progressive Caucus, which consists of one Senator and 75 House members, and is the largest caucus in the House of Representatives, has articulated this succinctly and well:
"Social Security is a solution to a looming retirement income crisis, the disappearing middle class, and growing income inequality...The CPC... endorses expanding Social Security's benefits and employing a more accurate measure of inflation..."
Mr. President, you have evolved on many important issues of the day. During your presidency, you have proposed, in your budgets, some cuts to Social Security. That will be your legacy, unless you take bold action: Announce that you will be sending to Congress legislation to expand Social Security.
Some seem to believe that Social Security policymaking must be done behind closed doors. If policymakers want to cut Social Security against the will of the vast majority of Americans, it probably does have to be done that way.
In stark contrast, a proposal to expand Social Security, paid for in a fair way, I am confident, can be considered in the sunshine through the normal legislative process, as Social Security legislation has been historically. Poll after poll consistently shows that the vast majority of Americans -- irrespective of age, gender, race, ethnicity, political affiliation or ideology - support Social Security, favor its expansion, and are willing to pay more to protect and preserve the program.
Even though that legislation will not, in all likelihood, be enacted in this Congress, your proposal will force an honest debate. If you openly propose expansion legislation, the American people will know where your Party stands on this vital issue - something that is denied to them with vague discussion of saving or strengthening Social Security on a bipartisan basis. In light of so many Republican candidates advocating cutting Social Security's modest benefits, a bold expansion proposal is likely to lead to both retention of the White House and recapture of the Senate in 2016.
After all, 59 million people -- one out of four households -- receive monthly Social Security benefits. Most depend on those benefits for the majority of their incomes. Millions more are approaching retirement and will soon be dependent on those benefits as well. The families of all those beneficiaries know that, but for Social Security, most would have to provide economic assistance to them. This is a bread and butter issue. And these always-voters - those aged 62 and over who always vote - have recently voted Republican. A Presidential proposal to expand Social Security offers the best opportunity to bring them back to the Democratic fold. Retaining the White House and retaking the Senate is the best way to ensure your many legacies.
Expanding Social Security is winning politics. Much more important, it is extremely wise policy. If you remain silent on Social Security or, worse, include Social Security cuts in your final budget - your legacy will be set. It will be a legacy that breaks with Franklin Roosevelt. On the other hand, if you propose to expand Social Security, it will be building on the best traditions of your Party.
President Roosevelt prophetically recognized, more that 80 years ago, when he signed the Social Security Act of 1935 into law, "If the Senate and the House of Representatives in this long and arduous session had done nothing more than pass this Bill, the session would be regarded as historic for all time." If after decades of elites telling young people that Social Security won't be there for them, you reassure the American people by proposing legislation that both expands benefits and ensures the program is adequately financed by requiring that the wealthiest pay their fair share, this action alone, just like the action back in 1935, will "be regarded as historic for all time."
Nancy J. Altman
Social Security Works