Social Security and the State of the Union

In Tuesday's State of the Union address, President Obama undoubtedly will discuss the budget deficit. What if anything will he say about Social Security? The right message could lead to a resurgent Democratic party. The wrong message will spell disaster for the Democrats.

Poll after poll consistently shows that Americans across the political spectrum support Social Security strongly. For seniors, a group the Democrats lost in the midterms by 21 percentage points, Social Security is a bread-and-butter issue. Two-thirds of seniors receive half or more of their income from Social Security; they recognize how essential it is to the economic security of all Americans. Women, whom the Democrats also lost in November, recognize too how vital Social Security is. Disproportionately poor in old age, women understand how important Social Security is, not just to retirees, but to families when tragedy strikes in the form of the disability or death of a spouse.

Obama can choose to embrace Social Security and reestablish the connection with the American people he so effectively forged during the 2008 campaign. As Democrats in the past have always done, he can speak forcefully about Social Security as the earned right that it is. He can emphatically assure younger workers that the Democratic Party will fight to make sure that every young worker will get every penny of the benefits he or she has earned. He can show appropriate outrage toward Republicans and even those in his own Party, who seem to think most Americans can work as long as politicians, TV's talking heads and others who have all of life's comforts and advantages.

He can follow those words with a proposal to restore Social Security to long-range fiscal balance in the way the American people want it done. Recent polling reveals that over eight out of ten Americans oppose cutting Social Security's benefits, and two out of three oppose raising the retirement age. Rather, Americans want Social Security's manageable shortfall eliminated through increased revenue.

That is also the best policy. Social Security is the most efficient, universal, and secure part of the retirement income system. It is often the only disability insurance and life insurance protection that workers and their families have. It returns in benefits more than 99 cents of every dollar collected -- administrative costs much lower than those found in the private sector. At a time when employer-provided traditional pensions are disappearing, Social Security should be increased, not decreased. Its modest shortfall -- just 0.6 percent of GDP -- is highly affordable. The program's increased cost is an appropriate and modest response to an aging population.

If President Obama and his fellow Democrats take this route, they can use the support of the American people to lead a powerful long-term movement not just to eliminate Social Security's projected shortfall through increased revenue, but to push for higher benefits, particularly for those most disadvantaged, and for new benefits, such as paid parental leave, as the Social Security programs of many other nations provide. Democrats can use Social Security to remind Americans that government is not always the problem, as President Reagan asserted, but rather has certain economies of scale and other strengths, which the American people can use to better the lives of all.

That is one choice. Alternatively, the White House and other Democrats can advocate a compromise of Social Security benefit cuts and revenue increases. That approach will win the praise of editorial boards and pundits. It also will reinforce the view of many Americans that Washington is out of touch and does not listen.

If the president chooses to seek a bargain on Social Security, the Republicans will then have a choice. If they decide to be Machiavellian, they will exploit the Democrats' willingness to compromise, by claiming in 2012 that the Democrats are against Social Security, as they so successfully claimed in 2010 about Medicare. If they choose to negotiate a package of benefit cuts and revenue increases, Democrats will be the losers, as well. Social Security is a rich legacy that the Democratic Party and the American people have inherited. The Democrats should take the lead in building upon that legacy, not be partners in cutting it.

The very ideals that President Obama expressed so eloquently during the campaign are the values that underlie Social Security -- that we each have individual but also shared responsibility, that we are all subject to life's vicissitudes, that we are all part of one national community. He should once again proudly say so Tuesday night, as part of an eloquent defense of Social Security.