President Obama is using the anniversary of Social Security, the federal pension entitlement for the elderly, to trumpet Democrats' support for the popular program and accuse Republicans of trying to destroy it.
Seventy-five years after Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Social Security into law, Obama said in his weekly radio and Internet address Saturday: "We have an obligation to keep that promise, to safeguard Social Security for our seniors, people with disabilities and all Americans -- today, tomorrow and forever."
Some Republican leaders in Congress are "pushing to make privatizing Social Security a key part of their legislative agenda if they win a majority in Congress this fall," said Obama, calling such privatization "an ill-conceived idea that would add trillions of dollars to our budget deficit while tying your benefits to the whims of Wall Street traders and the ups and downs of the stock market."
Most Republicans, in fact, are wary of touching that idea, since Social Security is virtually sacrosanct to voters, particularly pensioners.
Yet, Democrats have been able to seize on the issue because of a proposal by Rep. Paul Ryan, the top Republican on the House of Representatives Budget Committee, that would allow younger people to put Social Security money into personal accounts.
Ryan's idea is similar to a proposal pushed unsuccessfully by former President George W. Bush. It's not been endorsed by party leaders and has attracted only a small number of Republican co-sponsors.
With Social Security's finances strained, policymakers talk frequently about the need to address the solvency of the entitlement program. How to do so is less clear, as Obama's comments Saturday underscored.
Obama said he's "committed to working with anyone, Democrat or Republican, who wants to strengthen Social Security." But he proposed no ideas for doing that.
Many Democrats adamantly oppose any cut in benefits to reduce costs and some won't accept a gradual increase in the retirement age, something that was done in the last overhaul in 1983. Republicans say an increase in Social Security taxes is out of the question, even for the wealthy.
Unless Congress acts, Social Security's combined retirement and disability trust funds are expected to run out of money in 2037. At that point, Social Security will collect enough in payroll taxes to cover about three-fourths of the benefits.
Obama has created a bipartisan fiscal commission that is supposed to come up with recommendations in December on improving the government's troubled finances and has said everything should be on the table.
"Democrats made an impossible mess out of health care and cut a half-trillion from Medicare, so I don't know whether the commission will come up with anything on health care or not," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said in a statement. "But on Social Security, hopefully they will come up with a credible plan that I can support and my members can support."
Republicans used their weekend radio and Internet address to accuse Democrats of pursuing an "extreme ideologically driven agenda" that threatens the nation's economic recovery.
"I am deeply concerned about the direction we're heading in right now," said former Rep. Pat Toomey, speaking for the Republicans. "That direction is being driven by extreme policies that are coming from one-party domination of government in Washington. ... It's time we put some real checks and balances back in place this November."
Toomey, who is the Republican Senate candidate in Pennsylvania, targeted for criticism the bailouts of housing mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as well as the car companies; the economic stimulus legislation that has failed to cut unemployment rates, and passage of health care legislation.
"Now, where do all these bailouts, takeovers and spending sprees leave us?" Toomey asked. "They leave us with a weak economy without job growth and with a mountain of debt for our kids."