WASHINGTON -- President Barack 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, cheering liberals and drawing a stark line between the White House and key Republicans in Congress.
Over the weekend, the White House informed Democratic lawmakers and advocates for seniors that Mr. Obama would emphasize the need to reduce record deficits in the speech, but that he would not call for reducing spending on Social Security -- the single largest federal program -- as part of that effort.
Liberals, who have been alarmed by Mr. 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 were 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 Mr. Obama was unlikely to specifically endorse any of the deficit commission's recommendations in the speech, but cautioned that he was unlikely to rule them off the table, either. On Social Security, for example, he will probably urge lawmakers to work together to make the program solvent, without going into details, congressional sources said.
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 Mr. Obama's speech: Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., chairman of the House Budget Committee.
Two years ago, Mr. Ryan published a plan to balance the budget titled "A Roadmap for America's Future," which 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 Mr. Ryan's plan, Democrats argue that Mr. Ryan's role as the voice of the party on fiscal issues suggests that Social Security soon will join nondefense appropriations on the GOP chopping block.
Mr. Ryan has said he would like to include entitlement cuts in the budget blueprint House Republicans expect to draft this spring. Pressed to take a position on Mr. 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," Mr. Cantor said. "It is for all of the younger people -- those 54 and younger -- we're going to have to have a serious discussion."
That was essentially the view adopted by the bipartisan deficit commission Mr. Obama appointed to develop a plan to rein in the spiraling national debt. Besides sharp cuts in appropriated programs, an overhaul of the tax code and reductions in Medicare spending, a majority of commission members endorsed Social Security changes, including raising the retirement age from 67 to 69 and the early retirement age from 62 to 64 by 2075, reducing checks for well-off retirees and using a less-generous formula to calculate cost-of-living increases.
All three House Republicans on the deficit panel, including Mr. Ryan, voted against the commission's plan, though it echoed many of the reforms Mr. Ryan has long championed. At the time, Republicans said they could not support a document that implicitly embraced Mr. Obama's overhaul of the health care system, which the House voted last week to repeal.
The commission's report did win the support of Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a key liberal who explicitly called for a debate over raising the retirement age, an idea he called "acceptable to me." Mr. Durbin's statement raised hopes among balanced-budget advocates that lawmakers could reach agreement at least on a package of reforms to balance the books for Social Security, which is viewed as a much easier task politically than overhauling the tax code or fixing Medicare.