Mr. President, you moved a nation today with your words in Tucson. “Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame,” you said, “let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.”
You also said this: “It’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”
Two weeks from now the State of the Union address will be an opportunity to bring Americans together – Americans who have been bitterly divided by party loyalty and ideology, but who stand united in their support for the social programs that have improved our lives for the past seventy-five years. On that night, will they know that somebody has heard them? Will they feel that someone is talking to them? Will they feel they have a voice inside the Capitol rotunda, in a city where they sometimes seem to have been forgotten?
There’s a popular idea in Washington that I’ve – perhaps too harshly – called “the Third Way Fallacy.” It essentially says we can end the harsh and divisive nature of today’s politics by having Washington party leaders work out their differences in private. Some of us think that’s the wrong way to go about the people’s business – that a truly “bipartisan” approach must respect the opinions of each party’s members, not just those of its leaders.
But whatever my past criticisms of Third Way, the organization had a terrific suggestion today for increasing civility in politics. In an open letter to Speaker Boehner, they suggested that the Congressional seating chart be changed for this year’s State of the Union address so that members aren’t separated by party.
“We do not see any purpose behind putting Democrats on one side of the floor and Republicans on the other,” Third Way’s letter said. “The spectacle of one side of the room leaping to its feet while the other sits glumly on its hands is just that–a spectacle. Perhaps having both parties sit together, intermingled, would help control the choreography of partisanship that accompanies the President’s remarks.”
This idea is smart, moving, and even beautiful. The State of the Union has turned into an annual circus, as you know far better than I. Americans want more statesmanship in Washington, and this would be a symbolic way of letting them know they’ve been heard. The Speaker would bring honor to himself and his institution if he took this suggestion. It would, in Third Way’s words, “demonstrate what is true but not always apparent–that we are one nation, not two, and that Members are unified by their service to our country.”
Mr. Boehner is famous for crying in public, but if he follows this suggestion maybe we’ll cry instead. It might be good for the country if more of us shared the burden of tears.
But the business at hand won’t just be symbolic. As you know, Mr. President, leaders of both political parties have been talking about Social Security cuts. Your own Deficit Commission came up with some very Draconian (and unpopular) ideas, and members of your Administration haven’t committed to defending retirement benefits. There are even rumors that people in your Administration have floated trial balloons about cutting a deal with Republicans to raise the retirement age and make other cuts.
Inside the Beltway there’s some “bipartisan” approval for those ideas. But outside Washington the real bipartisan consensus is even stronger: Large majorities of Americans – Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike – agree that Social Security must be defended, not cut.
Mr. President, I hope you’ll have the chance to see the poll numbers on Social Security. We know you’ve said you won’t govern by following polls, and we respect that. But it’s moving and inspiring to see the way Americans of all political parties have joined together in their defense of Social Security. They speak with one voice about how to handle it: Raise the payroll tax cap and protect its current benefits. They’re equally united in their defense of Medicare in similarly large numbers. These are the people’s programs, and people of all political persuasions want them protected.
We know that Americans don’t like party squabbling. But that doesn’t mean they want the two parties to collaborate on policies that rank-and-file members of both parties have rejected. Voters mean exactly what they’ve told those pollsters for years: They want Washington politicians to work for them, not each other. They’ll be watching on January 25 to see their leaders speak to them, or to each other.
When asked how we should cut the deficit, Americans would rather raise taxes on the wealthy than cut Social Security by more than two to one. These Americans – Democrats, Republicans, and independents – make up the New Silent Majority, and they speak with a single voice. To paraphrase Third Way, when they talk about Social Security they demonstrate what is true but not always apparent – that we are one nation, not two.
This bipartisan consensus has the unwavering support of non-partisan experts, too – experts like Harry C. Ballantyne, who was appointed Chief Actuary for the Social Security Administration under Ronald Reagan. Mr. Ballantyne and two respected economists wrote a paper that explains how the bipartisan preference for Social Security – keep benefits and raise the payroll tax cap – addresses that program’s very modest long-term shortfall.
There will be many people in the room with you who want to make these cuts anyway, Mr. President. Despite the great benefits that have flowed to the wealthiest among us, they’ll want to protect the wealthy from paying the same payroll tax rate as police officers or nurses. These differences of opinion are unavoidable in a democracy. But you’ll have an opportunity to show the nation how its leaders can differ with courtesy and grace – and in this case, with a bipartisan majority at your back. You’ll be able explain that you’re not defending Social Security because you speak for Democrats, but because you speak for all Americans.
While you’re at it, you can also defend the principles of trust and honesty. Too many politicians and pundits have said that the government’s bonds, which cover the money it has borrowed from Social Security’s Trust Fund, is just an “IOU.” That’s not true. And you can remind them that even if it were true, we’re an honorable people who make good on our IOUs.
There isn’t a single argument being thrown around today about Social Security that hasn’t been around for 75 years: “Ponzi scheme,” too many old people and too few workers — you name it, we’ve heard it before. That’s why President Eisenhower’s bipartisan panel refuted them all back in the 1950s. Ike’s experts defended our shared hopes and dreams back then, and now it’s our generation’s turn.
You also said that in a time of tragedy “we reflect on the past. Did we spend enough time with an aging parent … Did we express our gratitude for all the sacrifices they made for us?” What better way of expressing gratitude to all of our aging parents than by ensuring their financial security? That’s an ideal way to “expand our moral imaginations, listen to each other more carefully, sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.”
Our moral imaginations shouldn’t be limited to slanted ideas cooked up in think tanks and parroted by pundits and consultants.
Sometimes listening to one another, really listening, means we have to silence the clamor of Beltway chatter.
Our instincts for empathy can be sharpened by the image of an elderly woman in a small urban apartment, struggling to get by on $800 per month. They should direct our thoughts to the 68-year-old janitor whose back aches after half a century spent pushing a broom. They should call us to remember the waitress whose feet can no longer support her for eight hours, and whose bent fingers can no longer scribble on her order pad.
We’ve been bound by shared dreams since the country was founded. Social Security and Medicare turned some of those dreams into reality. Let’s not turn them back into dreams.
Mr. President, this year’s State of the Union will help to shape your legacy. That legacy can be one of real bipartisanship. You can bring us together as a people by expressing our shared commitment to Social Security. That’s a commitment that binds Republicans, Democrats, Independents, and even Tea Party followers together in a common bond.
Reach out for that bond. Express it. Build on it to create a new American consensus – a consensus for fairness, a consensus for security, a consensus for growth and jobs. Americans are united on the issue of Social Security, and the state of that union is sound.
At least in one small way, we’re already bound together in our hopes and dreams. In a wounded moment, that bond can help us heal.
This post was produced as part of the Strengthen Social Security campaign.