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Sanders and other Senate Democrats strategize about Social Security and other benefits in 2015. (Photo: Senate Democrats/flickr/cc)

Thanks to Activism And Sanders, Obama Changes Course on Social Security

"This is a huge reversal from the days when President Obama sought a so-called 'grand bargain' with Republicans that included cuts to Social Security benefits."

Nadia Prupis

Progressive groups welcomed President Barack Obama's call to expand Social Security by increasing taxes on the wealthy, praising the effort and crediting it in part to "relentless grassroots activism" and Bernie Sanders' political efforts.

During a speech on economic policy in Elkhart, Indiana on Wednesday, Obama announced, "We can't afford to weaken Social Security. We should be strengthening Social Security. And not only do we need to strengthen its long-term health, it's time we finally made Social Security more generous and increased its benefits so that today's retirees and future generations get the dignified retirement they've earned."

"We could start paying for it by asking the wealthiest Americans to contribute a little bit more," he said.

The sharp leftward turn follows a prolonged battle between the president and progressive lawmakers and groups over Obama's 2013 proposal to reform Social Security with a controversial formula known as "chained CPI," marketed as a compromise with Republicans, which would have reduced the annual growth of retirement benefits relative to inflation.

Thanks to a furious response from the left—which included promises to unseat Democrats who supported it—Obama dropped the unchained CPI provision the following year.

On Wednesday, many of those same groups applauded the turnaround.

"We're thrilled that President Obama has joined the millions of progressive activists who support expanding Social Security," said Murshed Zaheed, political director of the action group CREDO. "This is a huge reversal from the days when President Obama sought a so-called 'grand bargain' with Republicans that included cuts to Social Security benefits."

Thanks to "relentless grassroots activism, the national conversation has shifted from cutting Social Security to expanding it," Zaheed said.

Among those who challenged the proposal—and the president's previous attempts to weaken retirement benefits—was Sanders, who mobilized a coalition of labor unions, rights groups, and other organizations to oppose those efforts. In 2013, more than 2 million Americans had signed petitions stating their opposition to chained CPI, their signatures presented during a rally at the White House that featured Sanders as a speaker, promising to "do everything in my power to block President Obama’s proposal to cut benefits for Social Security recipients through a chained consumer price index."

In 2015, Sanders also co-authored an open letter to the White House signed by other progressive U.S. Congress members, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), calling on Obama to expand Social Security.

As Adam Green and Stephanie Taylor, co-founders of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said on Thursday, "Progressives led, the people spoke out, and the politicians are now embracing change we can believe in: Expanding Social Security benefits—never cutting them. This will be a defining issue in the 2016 election."


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