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President Obama Finally Gets It Right On Expanding Social Security

Expanding the program is a key demand that members of the progressive Social Security coalition have been pressing for years, but this is the first time that we can claim President Obama as an ally on this issue. (Photo: AP)

President Obama on Wednesday did a remarkable 180-degree turn on Social Security, and since we have been dogging him for his earlier failed attempt at a “grand bargain” that would have cut Social Security benefits for future seniors, let’s give credit where credit is due.

Here’s what the president said at the Concord Community Elementary School in Elkhart, Ind.:

But look, let’s face it – a lot of Americans don’t have retirement savings. Even if they’ve got an account set up, they just don’t have enough money at the end of the month to save as much as they’d like because they’re just barely paying the bills. Fewer and fewer people have pensions they can really count on, which is why Social Security is more important than ever. 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 that they’ve earned. And we could start paying for it by asking the wealthiest Americans to contribute a little bit more. They can afford it. I can afford it.

That is the message that members of the progressive Social Security coalition have been pressing for years, but this is the first time that we can claim President Obama as an ally on this issue.

Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works, was as late as last year making critical comments about President Obama’s stance on Social Security, telling Talking Points Memo that Obama “hasn’t been great on this issue.” Then, Altman was still smarting from Obama’s willingness to cut a deal with Republicans in 2011 that would have resulted in a reduced cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security benefits, and thus would have eroded seniors’ buying power over time.

But on Wednesday, Altman released a statement that praised Obama for adding “to his already impressive legacy. By endorsing expanding, not cutting, Social Security, he has thwarted a thirty-year, billionaire-funded campaign to undermine confidence in the future of Social Security. He has announced loudly and clearly that the question whether to expand or cut Social Security is one of values, plain and simple.”

Maya Rockeymoore, president of the Center for Global Policy Solutions (and a member of the Campaign for America’s Future board) explained in a statement what President Obama’s about-face meant in dollars-and-cents terms.

“We applaud President Obama’s proposal to strengthen Social Security given that our nation is facing a retirement crisis with 38 million working-age households (45 percent of the U.S. workforce) without retirement savings of any kind and a paltry median account balance of $40,000 for those with retirement accounts in 2010,” Rockeymoore wrote.

That’s particularly true for people of color, the statement continued, because they are disproportionately employed “in low-wage jobs that don’t pay enough for them to save and don’t offer retirement benefits.”

Paul Waldman, writing in The Washington Post, said, “Now that Obama has taken this position, it makes it much more likely that most or all Democrats will adopt it as well, which could truly change a debate that up until now has been dominated by an alliance of Republicans and supposedly centrist advocates whose mission is to scale back the most successful social programs America ever created.”

This is a victory for the millions of people who have joined the call to expand Social Security, not cut it. This should also eliminate any ambiguity over who really supports protecting Social Security, and who is only mouthing the phrase to cover an agenda that would do violence to a program that has been the only thing separating millions of people in their sunset years from abject poverty.

Isaiah J. Poole

Isaiah J. Poole

Isaiah J. Poole is the editorial director of The Next System Project, a project of the Democracy Collaborative.

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