Liberal groups worry president will cut deal on 'crown jewel' Social Security

A broad coalition of labor unions and liberal groups has launched an intense lobbying campaign directed at the White House in advance of President Obama’s State of the Union address.

These groups are concerned about Obama’s taciturn response to the proposal by his fiscal commission to gradually increase the retirement age and use a different calculation for cost-of-living adjustments.

Coalition partners held a conference call with liberal bloggers on Thursday afternoon to expand the public-relations campaign directed at the White House and Congress.

The Strengthen Social Security Campaign includes more than 200 member groups such as the AFL-CIO, AFSCME, SEIU, Campaign for America’s Future, National Women’s Law Center, USAction and

Many of the groups were members of the Health Care for America Now campaign that worked alongside Obama to push healthcare reform through Congress.

Now that Republicans control the House and Obama is facing reelection, the political dynamic is different and liberal groups fear the president might be willing to cut a deal on Social Security. Labor unions and liberal groups worry Obama could endorse a boost in the retirement age or a change in cost-of-living adjustments when he discusses strategies for reducing the federal deficit later this month.

“Everybody and their cousin is talking to the White House about this,” said a Democratic strategist involved in the lobbying campaign. “Nobody in the progressive world thinks the president ought to endorse the Bowles-Simpson Social Security stuff. People feel very strong about it and have been working it very hard.

“No one knows for sure where the White House is,” said the strategist. “Social Security has been the crown jewel of progressive policy over the last century. Just because so many people voted for the Bowles-Simpson plan and Obama hasn’t said anything specifically about the Social Security recommendations, groups are doing an all-out push.”

The Campaign for America’s Future plans to release polling data next week conducted by Stan Greenberg showing public attitudes about Social Security and the economy.

“We have encouraged our partners to directly contact the White House,” said Eric Kingson, co-chairman of the Strengthen Social Security Campaign. “There’s a blogging strategy, a campaign to have members of the public write in and tell the president to keep the promise and tell Congress to keep the promise of Social Security.”

In December, former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), the chairman of Obama’s fiscal commission, released their final recommendations for Social Security as part of a comprehensive proposal to reduce the deficit.

Eleven of the 18 members of the bipartisan commission, including Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) voted for the final debt-reduction proposal.

Kingson said the liberal coalition is also in the midst of planning a nationwide grassroots campaign to press members of Congress not to support cuts to Social Security.

He estimated the coalition’s budget is “a couple million” over the next six months, but that does not include the substantial resources that unions such as the AFL-CIO will allocate to allied activities, such as educating their members on the issue.

He said increasing the retirement age by one year amounts to a cut of 6 to 7 percent in benefits.

The retirement age is scheduled to rise to 67 by the year 2027.

Bowles and Simpson have called for the retirement age to go up to 68 by 2050 and 69 by 2075 to account for “increasing life expectancy.”

But Kingson argues that while the life expectancy of elites earning high incomes has increased, that is not true for low-income workers.

“How do you tell people in the midst of a recession that the elites in Washington, the talking heads, say we have to raise the retirement age because the life expectancy is longer for elites, but for many of us it’s not longer?” Kingson said.

Many low-income workers opt to retire before the age of 65 because of health problems or difficulty finding steady employment, he noted.

The coalition has sent e-mails to members asking them to contact the White House and asking Obama to keep the promise of Social Security by not cutting benefits.

"In late January, President Obama will make his annual State of the Union address. It is important that he use the speech to send a clear message to those who want to cut Social Security — Hands Off!" stated an e-mail sent this week.

“Nobody knows what the president is going to do on Social Security,” said Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future. “It’s a huge question for people like me who are strong supporters of Social Security.”

Hickey warned that if Obama embraced the Bowles-Simpson recommendations for Social Security, it would “split the Democratic Party.”

Other liberals warn that it would hurt Obama’s chances for reelection in 2012 and would alienate senior voters from Democratic candidates.