President Obama called on Congress on Tuesday to work with him to move the nation past the recession and into an era of tackling the deficit and investing in programs that will help the country compete in the world.
“We are poised for progress,” Obama said during his State of the Union speech. “The steps we’ve taken over the last two years may have broken the back of this recession – but to win the future, we’ll need to take on challenges that have been decades in the making.”
He touched on issues of importance to older Americans, including a defense of his health care reform, a promise to freeze domestic spending, a call for expanded job-training programs, a vow to veto pork projects and the need to tackle a runaway deficit as well as difficult topics such as improving the solvency of Social Security and Medicare.
Fixing the Budget Deficit
Acknowledging the reality of a new Republican majority arrayed before him in the House chamber, Obama struck many centrist themes, including praise for U.S. soldiers and a call for a five-year freeze on domestic discretionary spending except for security programs, saving more than $400 billion over 10 years. The cuts, which were not detailed, could affect programs of interest to older Americans.
A. Barry Rand, AARP’s chief executive officer, said he was concerned that deficit cutting could involve entitlement programs – Medicare and Social Security. “While efforts to reduce the deficit are important, we will continue to speak out against any plan offered by the administration or Congress that would target these critical safety nets for changes based on budgetary targets instead of their impact on the lives of everyday Americans,” he said.
Republicans have made it clear that they want the nation to go further in cutting spending, which has contributed to a massive federal debt. Hours before the speech, the House voted to roll back spending to 2008 levels.
Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., chairman of the House Budget Committee, gave the official GOP response to the president’s address. Ryan said the country is at a tipping point and can’t afford the big-government vision of Democrats. “We are at a moment, where if government’s growth is left unchecked and unchallenged, America’s best century will be considered our past century,” Ryan said.
Republicans called for deeper domestic cuts and said their November trouncing of Democrats at the polls was a clear sign the public wants a smaller government.
“You voted out the big-spending politicians,” said Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., a leader of the conservative Tea Party. “We’re in the very early days of a history-making turn in America.”
Edward F. Coyle, executive director of the Alliance for Retired Americans, said he was alarmed to see Ryan and Bachmann speak for the Republicans because of their hostility to Social Security and Medicare programs.
Obama’s own deficit commission has proposed changes to Social Security (such as raising the retirement age) and Medicare. Obama said Tuesday night that any changes to put Social Security on stronger financial footing shouldn’t put current retirees at risk.
Health Care Reform
Republicans in the House have voted to repeal Obama's sweeping health care reform, which has been a lightning rod for criticism.