In a speech this week in Indiana, President Barack Obama announced a major shift in his position on Social Security. “It’s time we finally made Social Security more generous and increased its benefits,” Obama declared, “so today’s retirees and future generations get the dignified retirement that they have earned.”
This is a welcome change from Obama’s past support for a so-called Grand Bargain that likely would have included cuts to Social Security benefits. It is tempting to view it as evidence of how Obama “really” thinks about the issue, in the same way that his support for gay marriage, after years of opposing it, was seen as a reflection of his real views. But the shift on Social Security isn’t about Obama per se. Rather, it’s an excellent example of how political pressure from below can facilitate change. It also demonstrates the limitations of a president’s ability to impose his vision on the country.
One variant of the Overton Window combines the idea with a belief in the power of the presidential bully pulpit. When presidents push for major policy changes, the theory goes, they win even if they lose in the short term. George W. Bush’s big push to privatize Social Security in his second term might have crashed and burned—but by moving the political center of gravity it made some kind of privatization, or at least big Social Security cuts, more palatable.
But, in fact, Bush’s big push was, from a liberal perspective, the best thing to ever happen to the program. If anything, Bush’s failed initiative moved the political center of gravity on the issue to the left, making major cuts to Social Security benefits politically toxic.