The retirement industry was expecting to hear more specifics from President Obama in his State of the Union address.
That didn’t happen, despite the fact that the White House released a fact sheet detailing retirement reforms the weekend before the speech. The assumption from everyone was that the president’s ideas on reforming retirement tax incentives and expanding retirement savings opportunities would get some attention come Tuesday evening.
But specifics were not to be found in the speech, and Obama ended up mentioning “retirement” just twice and only in a peripheral way.
“I was and wasn’t surprised,” said Jim Klein, president of the American Benefits Council, referring to the papering over of retirement policy.
“A lot of us were expecting a bit more, given that advance word was that retirement policy was a part of the larger tax reform issues the president was expected to highlight.”
But, as many political commentators have noted, Klein said the speech clearly didn’t turn out to be the “laundry list” of legislative proposals that presidents typically deliver in their State of the Union addresses.
Actually, Obama did talk about trade, Cuba and higher education, among other items, but, again, made little reference to retirement.
The White House on Wednesday noted that Obama, at the top of his address, told the audience he wanted to “focus less on a checklist of proposals, and focus more on the values at stake in the choices before us.”
That’s why, it said, the fact sheet included items that were not in the speech.
Alan Glickstein, a senior retirement consultant at Towers Watson, said he wasn’t anticipating too many specifics.
“These tend to be complicated and technical issues, and the president said early on it wasn’t going to be a policy speech. There wasn’t even that much specifically said on health care,” Glickstein said.
In any case, there certainly was no lack of specifics in the proposals laid out in advance of the speech.
The president doesn’t just want to encourage automatic enrollment for retirement savers, he wants to mandate it. Every employer with 10 or more workers that doesn’t already offer a plan would be required to enroll employees in an IRA.
To minimize the burden that would place on small businesses, the president wants to offer a $3,000 tax credit for employers with 100 or fewer workers that offer an auto-IRA plan. He would also triple the so-called “start-up” tax credit for small employers offering a new plan to $4,500. That would offset administrative costs of operating a plan, according to the administration’s fact sheet.
Of the president’s proposals, Klein said he expects Republicans on Capitol Hill to be willing to work with new auto-enrollment proposals.
Other ideas, like Obama’s hope to cap tax-deferred contributions to retirement plans after account balances reach $3.4 million, are more likely to draw Republican opposition.
Despite the omission of specifics Tuesday night, Cathy Weatherford, president and CEO of theInsured Retirement Institute, said there were areas of the speech that confirmed President Obama’s commitment to retirement reform.
“President Obama and his administration have made promoting retirement security a high priority, and his address to the nation last night — including the personal narrative of a struggling American family — confirms that it will remain a top priority on his domestic policy agenda,” Weatherford said in a statement.
Just as clear is the likelihood that the proposals Obama didn’t mention will lead to a legislative tussle.
The ICI and ABC said they look forward to working with the president on retirement policy. They also characterized preserving tax-deferred treatment of retirement savings as an imperative to helping Americans prepare for life after work.