Paul Ryan’s Hammock

How stands the Social Security discussion in Washington following State-of-the-Union night? More or less where it was before. Which, for defenders of the program is mostly not good.

President Obama honored his pledge to congressional Democrats over the previous weekend not to endorse cuts to the program. In fact, he went a bit farther, rejecting any plan that would include “slashing benefits for future generations.”

There’s more to say about that. But first, what about Paul Ryan and that Michele Bachmann? Neither of them mentioned Social Security. TV’s talking heads, both before and after the SOTU and the two response speeches, couldn’t stop repeating themselves that the Republican leadership had a big problem: the Tea Partiers were out of control and embarrassing the party with their obstreperousness and their fringe views.

Nonsense. Bachmann’s speech was if anything less of a fire-eating act than Ryan’s, mostly confined to self-congratulation at the Tea Party victories in November, statistics about unemployment and the national debt, and an invocation of the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima (more than 65 years ago). Her actual policy positions were completely unsurprising: repeal Obamacare, pass a Balanced Budget Amendment, cut spending to create a “leaner” government.

Nothing Bachmann said veered even slightly from the official position of the Republican leadership. If anything, the party benefited from her speech, since it allowed them to use prime TV airtime to appeal directly to Tea Party voters who were perhaps turned off by the leadership’s propensity to make deals with the administration during the recent lame-duck session. She’s not a rebel. She’s a bridge to the new wave for Boehner, McConnell, and company. . . .

What about Ryan? This was where things got fun. Like Obama, he didn’t mention Social Security explicitly. But he did say this:

Our nation is approaching a tipping point.

We are at a moment, where if government’s growth is left unchecked and unchallenged, America’s best century will be considered our past century. This is a future in which we will transform our social safety net into a hammock, which lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency.

“Ryan’s hammock” is surely one of the most singular pieces of political image-making in years. Just who’s going to be reclining in that comfortable perch?

Could it be seniors, whose Social Security checks haven’t grown for two years and are quickly being eaten up by Medicare premiums and rising out-of-pocket medical costs?

Could it be the sandwich generation of middle-aged, middle-income workers, who are struggling to pay for their children’s education at the same time they take in their parents, whose Social Security and Medicare benefits won’t allow them to live on their own anymore?

Could it be blue-collar and white-collar workers whose private pensions and employer-sponsored health insurance are disappearing and thus find themselves counting more than ever on Social Security?

Could it be unemployed African and Hispanic Americans, hit harder than any other group by the recession and wondering if they’ll ever find another job, let alone be able to retire?

Jobs – that’s the rub. The best way to improve Social Security’s long-term fiscal prospects – assuming you believe they’re that big a problem to begin with – is to have a job-creating economy. Unemployment is a problem not just for today’s workers but for tomorrow’s seniors – and the working population that will have to support them, whether through Social security or some other system.

The public understands this. In the latest Democracy Corps/Campaign for America’s Future poll, conducted earlier this month, unemployment and outsourcing of American jobs ranked first and second with respondents, 75% of whom placed them in their top two. Deficits were included by only 18%

The astonishing thing about Tuesday night’s speech-making, then, was that Bachmann was the only one who even mentioned the unemployment rate. Obama mentioned “jobs” more than 25 times, but mostly to talk about the need to build for the future. He was clearly more comfortable spinning visions of new R&D, new industries, and new infrastructure projects that the Republican House surely won’t let get off the drawing board.

A little more awareness of everyday people’s plight mixed in with the big vision would have helped.

Ryan was little better, mentioning jobs only three times, mainly to philosophize vaguely about “the spirit of initiative.”

Just as glaringly, not one of these three Tribunes of the People even mentioned the crisis in foreclosures, which continues to roll along, still destroying working families’ wealth and preventing a full economic recovery.

But Bachmann at least told the truth about jobs – right at the opening of her speech. Two years ago, unemployment stood at 7.8%. Today, it’s 9.4%, and hasn’t been lower for 20 straight months. Her argument – that stimulus spending somehow got us there – made no sense. But so what? At least she was unafraid to state the facts. My guess is that she earned points with TV viewers just for doing so. Why were Obama and Ryan so afraid to speak directly to what’s clearly a national emergency?

So perhaps Bachmann’s speech wasn’t so conventional after all. It was also different in another way. Except for some generic statements about big-spending government, she said nothing that could be taken to imply any desire to cut Social Security or any other part of the safety net. Which only makes sense, because the polls tell us that cutting these programs is quite unpopular amongst her Tea Party constituency.

Ryan, on the other hand, had his “hammock.” His party’s leaders have most likely dismissed any desire to touch Social Security this year for fear of damaging their chances of regaining the White House in 2012. But the Ayn Randian in the boyish congressperson from Wisconsin couldn’t help preaching against the moral iniquity of social insurance, just for a moment. Clearly, the Republicans haven’t taken their eyes off the prize.

They might even be willing to take up the battle this year, if the White House offers them some support. Which isn’t out of the question.

Obama mentioned the deficit 11 times in his speech, and he mentioned bipartisanship twice. Once it was to praise the Bowles-Simpson fiscal commission, and in so doing, he made the same mistake that countless journalists have committed since the co-chairs released their proposals: implying that these were endorsed by the entire commission. The second time was to call for “a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations.”

Tax reform, he said, has to be done in a deficit-neutral way. He spoke approvingly of Bowles’ and Simpson’s conclusion that “the only way to tackle our deficit is to cut excessive spending wherever we find it – in domestic spending, defense spending, health care spending, and spending through tax breaks and loopholes.” And he boasted that his proposed spending cuts will “reduce the deficit by more than $400 billion over the next decade,” bringing “discretionary spending to the lowest share of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was President.”

That’s an absurd goal for a country with a population larger by more than 120 million people and a far more complicated set of social-economic issues to face than when Eisenhower took office. But there was Obama, trying to occupy the same turf as Ryan and the Republican, who want to cut even deeper. Historically, during deficit-reduction binges – under Reagan in 1981 and 1985, under George H.W. Bush in 1990, under Clinton in 1993 – Social Security always comes up. Because, as Ben Bernanke says, that’s “where the money is.”

Nothing in either Obama’s or Ryan’s comments Tuesday night imply they won’t be tempted to go there. But don’t worry. At least we’ve got Michele Bachmann!

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