Back in the days before the State of the Union was used to showcase Congress's bipartisan spirit and parties still sat on opposite sides of the aisle, the American people could get a good read on a party's position on an issue from their reaction to lines in the speech.
One telling incident came in 2006, when President George W. Bush complained that “Congress did not act last year on my proposal to save Social Security.” Applause from Democrats in Congress—proud of having thwarted reform of their beloved New Deal era program—interrupted the rest of his sentence, which warned that “the rising cost of entitlements is a problem that is not going away.”
Five years later, with Social Security facing a deficit, President Obama renewed calls to reform the program stating that “we should also find a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations.” He then continued to describe all the ways Congress shouldn't bring the program into balance—such as reducing benefits or using market-based investments—leaving massive tax increases as the only real option left for discussion.
Americans are used to politicians using Social Security as a political football. It would hardly seem like a proper campaign season if our airwaves weren't peppered with accusations of one candidate wanting to gut Social Security and force seniors on to the streets. Americans expect State of the Unions to include a throwaway line about shoring up the program's finances. They also expect Congress to do absolutely nothing to follow through on the insincere call to action.
Yet this is a can that can only be kicked so far down the road. For nearly three decades, taxes paid to support Social Security more than covered benefits so that surplus revenue helped pay other expenses, and masked the full extent of the federal deficit. Yet in 2010, with high unemployment and Baby Boomers beginning to retire, Social Security's payroll tax failed to cover benefit payments. So instead of providing money to support the rest of the government, Social Security took a bite out of the budget.