Obama won't endorse raising retirement age or reducing Social Security benefits

President Obama gave a preview of his State of the Union speech, which he will deliver on Tuesday.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 25, 2011; 6:22 AM

More than two months after his deficit commission first laid out a plan for reining in the national debt, President Obama has yet to embrace any of its controversial provisions - and he is unlikely to break that silence Tuesday night.

While Obama plans to stress the need to reduce record budget deficits in his State of the Union address, he is not expected to get into the details and will instead call for members of both parties to work together to tackle the problem, according to congressional and administration sources.

Democratic lawmakers said that approach makes sense as the White House begins a delicate dance with resurgent Republicans over government spending, tax reform and the other difficult issues that will shape the debate into the 2012 presidential campaign. Until Republicans signal a willingness to work with Democrats to raise taxes as well as cut spending, the lawmakers said, it would be a mistake for Obama to endorse painful policies that could become the target of political attack.

"Reaching agreement requires both sides to demonstrate a willingness to compromise. He's going to want everyone to show their hand at the same time," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee, who has discussed strategy with the White House.

But the president's decision not to lay out his own vision for reducing the national debt has infuriated balanced-budget advocates, who fear that a bipartisan consensus for action fostered last month by Obama's commission could wither without presidential leadership.

"There is no way you get momentum without the president. If you don't lead now, when is it going to come?" said Maya MacGuineas, president of the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. "He has to go first and he has to be specific. He has to pivot to something hard."

The direction of Obama's speech became apparent over the weekend, when the White House informed Democratic lawmakers and advocates for the elderly that he would not endorse the commission's recommendation to raise the retirement age and make other cuts to Social Security - the single largest federal program.

Liberals, who have been alarmed by Obama's recent to shift to the center and his effort to court the nation's business community, applauded the decision, arguing that Social Security cuts are neither necessary to reduce current deficits nor a wise move politically. Polls show that large majorities of Americans in both parties - even in households that identify themselves as part of the tea party movement - oppose cutting Social Security benefits.

"Most of us would like to see the Democrats remain the strong defenders of Social Security, which they have to be if they want to win the next election," said Roger Hickey, co-director of the liberal Campaign for America's Future.

Administration officials cautioned that Obama is not necessarily taking benefit cuts off the table. They said his vision for deficit reduction will become clearer with the release of his 2012 budget request in mid-February and in the months beyond, as both parties test the limits for compromise.

"This is a president who, in last year's budget, instituted some tough measures. . . . You've seen proposals already this year to freeze civilian pay for government employees," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Monday. "And the president, again, will spend some time, not just tomorrow night and not just at the introduction of the budget, but throughout the year, talking about what we have to do, again, to make progress on our spending."

While some Senate Republicans are working with Democrats to advance a deficit-reduction plan, House Republicans have so far shown almost no appetite to do so. Instead, they have focused exclusively on sharp cuts to government agencies other than the departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs.

On Tuesday, hours before Obama is set to deliver his address in the House chamber, the House will vote on a resolution that urges Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to cap spending for non-security programs at 2008 levels - a move that would require an immediate reduction of at least 15 percent in such programs as early-childhood education, law enforcement and food safety inspection.

House conservatives are pressing for deeper cuts that would requires slashing such programs by as much as 30 percent. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Monday that they would have a chance to offer an alternative to the approximately $60 billion package of rescissions that Ryan and House appropriators are preparing. "This is going to be an open process," he said.

Like Obama, Republicans have been reluctant to endorse specific cuts to the largest federal programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, which are hugely popular with the public. On Monday, Democratic lawmakers argued that Republicans' decision to have Ryan deliver the GOP response to Obama's speech suggests that the party supports Ryan's "Roadmap for America's Future," which calls for deep cuts to Social Security and Medicare and partially privatizing the two programs.

Ryan has said he would like to include cuts to entitlement spending in the budget blueprint he will draft this spring. Pressed to take a position on Ryan's "Roadmap" over the weekend, Cantor acknowledged on NBC's "Meet the Press" that "the direction in which the 'Roadmap' goes is something we need to embrace." But a senior House Republican aide, noting that Ryan's plan attracted fewer than 20 co-sponsors when it was offered last year, said Ryan will not wade into those waters in his speech Tuesday night.

With both the president and his adversaries ducking the hardest issues as they address the nation, independent budget analysts said their hopes for serious action are growing dim.

"If the president wasn't willing to embrace these sort of changes, he shouldn't have appointed a commission to find solutions. What did he expect?" said Robert L. Bixby, executive director of the nonprofit Concord Coalition, which advocates for balanced budgets.

Staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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