(Bloomberg) — President Barack Obama’s surprise call to expand Social Security highlights a populist shift in the U.S. political landscape that has been propelled by the campaign of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
Just five years ago, Obama called for reducing future Social Security benefits — an idea that at the time was in vogue for many Republicans and some Democrats, who treated it as a badge of fiscal responsibility.
No more. Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, says Social Security benefits shouldn’t be cut — a departure from other Republican leaders such as House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Sanders, as part of his Democratic presidential campaign, has been calling for an expansion of benefits, and the party’s likely nominee, Hillary Clinton, took a similar position earlier this year. Obama joined the chorus on Wednesday.
“It is a much different universe today,” said Warren Gunnels, policy director for the Sanders campaign. “Go back to 2011, when the debate was not whether Social Security would be cut, but how much it would be cut. Now the debate is not whether we’re going to expand Social Security but how much we’ll expand it.”
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Five years ago, Obama offered to change the way Social Security benefits are calculated to make them less generous as part of a “grand bargain” on taxes and spending with then-House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican. He officially abandoned the policy in his fiscal 2015 budget, then went further in a speech in Indiana on Wednesday in which he excoriated Republican economic policies and called for Social Security benefits to be expanded.
Obama never supported Social Security cuts and would only agree as part of a larger deal with Republicans, Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said on Thursday. It was included in Obama’s budget “to illustrate what impact that could have on our fiscal situation, but only as a larger part of a so-called grand bargain,” Earnest said.
Obama’s change of heart reflects changes in both the economy and politics. Budget deficits have plunged since 2012, reducing pressure to cut entitlement spending. A 2014 Federal Reserve survey published last year found that 42 percent of American workers earning under $40,000 a year, and a quarter earning between $40,000 and $100,000, have no retirement savings. Years of partisan warfare have meanwhile killed appetite in both parties for painful political compromises.
Though Sanders is unlikely to win the Democratic presidential nomination, the emerging orthodoxy of his party calling for an expansion of Social Security owes as much to him as anyone.
In March 2015, as the top Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee, Sanders pushed for a vote on an amendment by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren proposing expanded Social Security benefits. Forty-two Democrats voted for the amendment and only two were opposed.
“That certainly was a very significant moment,” Gunnels said of the budget vote. “It really has been a drumbeat and a snowball that’s gotten much larger through the Sanders campaign and through these many years of grassroots efforts.”
Two months later, when Sanders announced his presidential bid, he put the policy front and center. “Instead of cutting Social Security,” he said, “we’re going to expand Social Security benefits.”
In February, after months of pressure from Sanders and liberals in her party, Clinton followed his lead. “I won’t cut Social Security,” she said on Twitter. “As always, I’ll defend it, & I’ll expand it.”
Obama jumped aboard, unifying the party’s leadership behind the policy.
“It is time we finally made Social Security more generous and increase the benefits,” he said, “so that today’s retirees and future generations get the dignified retirement that they have earned.”
Conservatives still wedded to the idea of cutting the program also credit Sanders.