President Obama has decided not to endorse his deficit commission's recommendation to raise the retirement age, and otherwise reduce Social Security benefits, in tonight's State of the Union address, encouraging liberals and drawing a stark line between the White House and key Republicans in Congress.
Obama's nationally televised address begins at 9 p.m. EST.
Over the weekend, the White House informed Democratic lawmakers and advocates for seniors that Obama in his speech will emphasize the need to reduce record deficits, but that he will not call for reducing spending on Social Security -- the single largest federal program -- as part of that effort.
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 cuts to Social Security.
"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 said Obama is unlikely to specifically endorse any of the deficit commission's recommendations in the speech but cautioned that he is unlikely to rule them off the table, either. On Social Security, for example, he is likely to urge lawmakers to work together to make the program solvent, without going into details, according to congressional sources.
Democratic lawmakers, nonetheless, quickly moved to capitalize on the president's decision, scheduling an afternoon news conference to call attention to the man Republicans have chosen to deliver the GOP response to Obama's speech: Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., chairman of the House Budget Committee.
Two years ago, Ryan published a plan to balance the budget titled "A Roadmap for America's Future." It called for deep cuts in both Social Security and Medicare spending. While Republicans as a group have been loath to publicly embrace the details of Ryan's plan, Democrats argue that Ryan's starring role as the voice of the party on fiscal issues suggests that Social Security soon will join nondefense appropriations on the GOP chopping block.
Ryan has said he would like to include entitlement cuts in the budget blueprint that House Republicans expect to draft this spring. Pressed to take a position on Ryan's "Roadmap" over the weekend, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., acknowledged on NBC's "Meet the Press" that "the direction in which the 'Roadmap' goes is something we need to embrace."
"The fundamental -- the starting point in any plan -- has got to be, we need to distinguish between those at or nearing retirement. Anyone 55 and older in this country has got to know that their Social Security benefits will not be addressed -- will not be changed," Cantor said. "It is for all of the younger people -- those 54 and younger -- we're going to have to have a serious discussion."