Will Obama Back Social Security Changes in State of the Union?

Social Security Barack Obama generic CBS

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With many expecting President Obama to endorse a fiscally moderate path forward in his State of the Union address next week - and perhaps call for changes to Social Security in the process -- progressives are urging the president to protect entitlement programs.

The cause of liberal concern is clear: Since Republicans won back the House of Representatives in the 2010 elections, Mr. Obama has signaled he will embrace more moderate-to-conservative ideas in his next two years in office. Recent polls suggest voters may be responding positively to that message. And as the White House well knows, Mr. Obama could help undermine any potential 2012 competitors by embracing more conservative fiscal policies.

Along those lines, the president could endorse modifications to the Social Security program in his State of the Union address, particularly given that his bipartisan deficit commission endorsed the idea in its comprehensive deficit reduction plan last month.

In an interview with Bloomberg Television that airs Friday night, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine said that Social Security "might all fit within a rubric of trying to deal with deficit issues and deal with them in an appropriate way that doesn't choke off the economic recovery."

Kaine said he has not read a draft of the speech, but he said the president will address the deficit "significantly" in his State of the Union speech -- and even more so when he delivers a budget to Congress in February.

"My expectation is that a number of the deficit-related ideas, either from the Erskine Bowles-Alan Simpson commission or Domenici-Rivlin or others, might be embedded in the budget," he said. "I think he'll say to Congress, 'You say you're serious about the deficit? I am, too. I've put it in a budget, and now let's figure out how we're going to get there.'"

In light of all this, 33 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus sent a letter to Mr. Obama today, the Washington Post's Greg Sargent reports, urging him to promise to protect Social Security in his State of the Union address.

"You have a unique opportunity to set forth a framework of democratic values and to call for protecting Social Security for generations to come," the letter said. "As members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, we stand with you and urge you to reaffirm your support for guaranteed Social Security for America's seniors."

The letter says that congressional Republicans have "invented a Social Security 'crisis' myth to promote their radical schemes to dismantle the cornerstone of retirement security for millions of Americans" and that "the promise of Social Security is one that we must keep."

Additionally, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee is running an ad in South Carolina and Washington, D.C. that targets Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham on the issue of Social Security - one that is clearly timed to send a message to the president ahead of the State of the Union. The ad features a 59-year-old South Carolina woman who deals with chronic pain after working in a library and carrying books for years.

"I'm in pain every day at work," the woman says. "I have a torn rotator cuff from carrying books. My hands have been numb at work... At 59, I'm just trying to make it until I can retire at 62."

The ad targets the proposal -- endorsed by Republicans like Graham, some Democrats, and the president's deficit commission -- to raise the retirement age and thus start paying out Social Security benefits to workers later in life.

"When Lindsey Graham supports raising the retirement age for people across South Carolina, including those whose jobs take a physical toll on their bodies, that shows that he's a fundamentally out-of-touch politician," PCCC co-founder Stephanie Taylor said in a statement. "We hope President Obama will strongly pressure Republicans on this issue during his State of the Union address."

The latest CBS News/New York Times poll could suggest that voters have approved of the president's recent moderate moves, including his tax-cut compromise that extended all of the Bush-era tax cuts and his call for a federal employee pay freeze. Mr. Obama's job approval rating stands at 49 percent, up from 45 percent in October. Americans also feel positive about the rest of the Obama presidency: Fifty-seven percent in the poll said they are optimistic about the next two years of the Obama administration. Yet 52 percent said they disapprove of his performance on the economy.

Political analyst Charlie Cook writes in the National Journal this week that Mr. Obama's political success is directly tied to the economy, which means catering to business interests. "The question is whether Washington will take steps to tip business leaders' willingness to let go of some of that capital and invest it to create jobs," he said.

As Mr. Obama makes overtures to the business community and signals his interest in taking a moderate economic course, Republicans are trying to repair their reputation as fiscal conservatives. Potential 2012 Republican presidential contender Tim Pawlenty published an op-ed for the Washington Post today calling for dramatic entitlement reforms.

"Given no other choice, I believe a bipartisan consensus could be created around ideas such as means-testing the cost-of-living increase in Social Security benefits, capping and block-granting Medicaid payments to states, and moving Medicare to a more efficient, pay-for-performance model," he wrote.

While calling for entitlement reforms will likely help Pawlenty score points with the Tea Party and other Republican primary voters, the idea is not popular among the general public.

This week's CBS News/ New York Times poll showed that most Americans say that the federal budget deficit is a very serious problem, but few want to scale back Social Security as a means of addressing it. Pollsters asked Americans which of three programs - the military, Medicare and Social Security - they would be willing to change to cut government spending. The military was by far the top choice, cited by 55 percent. Twenty-one percent cited Medicare, and 13 percent Social Security.

Adam Brandon, a spokesperson for the conservative group FreedomWorks (which often helps facilitate Tea Party gatherings), told Hotsheet that Pawlenty's position on entitlements is a viable one in the general election in spite of Social Security's popularity.

"I think we're at an inflection point in our nation," he said. "I'm getting the sense that for the first time people think our budget and deficits actually matter... If you're going to play politics as normal, yeah it's a liability [to endorse entitlement reforms], but I don't think we're in politics as normal, I think it's a new era."

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