* Part of the genius of Social Security has been its universal coverage.  Wilbur Cohen, the Milwaukee native and University of Wisconsin graduate who began his career fresh out of college working for the task force that was drafting the program that became Social Security and finished it as Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare in the Johnson administration, told me that he had heard Franklin D. Roosevelt say that if only the needy got Social Security, he could give it to people, but the next president could take it away.  But if Social Security was universal, FDR said, they’ll never be able to take it away.  So it’s turned out. Social Security isn’t just for the poor.  Everybody expects to get it, so nobody better touch it.

Why couldn’t Obama have followed that strategy?  A few reasons.  FDR was writing on a blank slate; there was no existing national old-age program that people feared losing.  The country was more frightened in 1935, after six years of Depression, four under Hoover, not the year or so of recession we’ve endured.  They were also more frightened because they didn’t have the experience of the social safety net we’ve gotten used to, the confidence that if worst came to worst, they’d be taken care of.