President Barack Obama endorsed an expansion of Social Security for the first time. “We can’t afford to weaken Social Security,” he said during a speech on economic policy in Elkhart, Indiana. “We should be strengthening Social Security. And not only do we need to strengthen its long-term health, it’s time we finally made Social Security more generous, and increased its benefits so that today’s retirees and future generations get the dignified retirement that they’ve earned.”
The increased benefits, he said, could be paid for “by asking the wealthiest Americans to contribute a little bit more. They can afford it. I can afford it.”
This was a far cry from Obama’s position on the program in late 2012, when his administration argued for reducing Social Security benefits by recalculating the way cost of living adjustments are made.
“President Obama’s evolution on Social Security, from at one time being open to cuts to calling for an expansion of benefits … is certainly welcome news, but not at all surprising,” said Alex Lawson, the executive director of Social Security Works, a nonprofit group that advocates for protecting and expanding the program.
Lawson’s organization has worked with lawmakers and other nonprofit organizations to oppose Obama’s proposed Social Security cuts and shift the conversation towards expansion. By the summer of 2014, a small group of Democratic caucus senators, led by Sen. Bernie Sanders, started advocating for lifting Social Security’s payroll tax cap so wealthier people paid more into the system, and then increasing benefits to seniors. Polling by advocacy groups found broad support for expansion.
This idea became a central theme in Sanders’s presidential campaign. In the speech announcing his candidacy, the senator said that “instead of cutting Social Security, we’re going to expand Social Security benefits.”
“It has become impossible for elected officials to ignore the simple fact that Social Security is a solution and not a problem, and that the only thing wrong with it are that benefits are too low,” Lawson said.