Biden and Trump agree on one big thing


Joe Biden and Donald Trump are bizarrely on the same page on the top issue so far in the 2024 White House race, as they aim huge, possibly campaign-defining swings at Republicans who they claim will shred retirement benefits.

The current and former presidents – bitter rivals who agree on little else – are both forcing their foes into political retreats and attempts to whitewash past support for changes that could cut Medicare and Social Security payouts.

Their strategy is reinforcing a truism of presidential election campaigns that candidates who even entertain the notion of “reforming” these cherished entitlement programs for seniors are playing with fire.

With typical bluntness, Trump has blasted his potential top rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, as a “wheelchair over the cliff kind of guy” after he voted, as a member of the US House, for non-binding resolutions that would have raised the age at which most seniors can collect their benefits to 70. As a 2012 congressional candidate, he supported privatizing Social Security, CNN’s KFile has reported. But trying to ease his vulnerability on the issue, DeSantis insisted in a Fox News interview last week: “We’re not going to mess with Social Security.”

Despite his own proposed cuts to these programs as president, Trump has kept up the attacks. “We’re not going back to people that want to destroy our great Social Security system – even some in our own party; I wonder who that might be – who want to raise the minimum age of Social Security to 70, 75 or even 80 in some cases, and who are out to cut Medicare to a level that will be unrecognizable,” he said at the Conservative Political Action Conference last Saturday.

A few days later, another Republican hopeful gave both Biden and Trump a new opening to exploit.

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley was forced to make clear Thursday that her striking and unspecific call the day before for raising the retirement age was only supposed to refer to Americans currently in their 20s, who are in effect a half century away from drawing their pensions. But her clarification won’t protect the former ambassador to the United Nations from Trump, who is splitting his party down the middle, yet again, by pouncing on competitors who have voiced traditional conservative orthodoxy on cutting or changing the programs. Biden is sure to also highlight Haley’s remarks as he claims only he can thwart a secret GOP agenda to kill off the vital programs.

“I guarantee you, I will protect Social Security and Medicare without any change. Guaranteed,” the president vowed in Philadelphia on Thursday. “I won’t allow it to be gutted or eliminated as MAGA Republicans have threatened to do.”

Biden browbeat Republicans during his “State of the Union” address last month to confirm on camera that they support shoring up Social Security and Medicare. And he’s anchoring his likely reelection bid on the most forceful campaign by a Democratic candidate in years on the issue. Some of his attacks are fair; others take statements by GOP leaders out of context. But they’re still potent – since both he and Trump know that when conservatives are explaining that they don’t plan to cut Medicare or retirement benefits, they are usually trying to dig out of a losing position.

And Biden has public opinion on his side. A Fox News poll last month, for instance, showed that Democrats are preferred over Republicans to better handle Medicare (by 23 points) and Social Security (by 16 points). No wonder Biden seems to relish this particular political battlefield.

The odd confluence of approaches – from a former president who sought to overturn an election and a successor who sees his administration as vital to saving democracy – says so much about each man’s political instincts, backgrounds and campaign strategy. It is also reflects the shifting character of the Republican Party, which Trump has torn from its corporate, ideologically pure conservative roots to build a new coalition that includes working class voters, often in the Midwest, that Biden is battling hard to win back.

In one sense, possibly the most thorny domestic issue of the years to come should, of course, have a place in a presidential campaign. But when candidates use it to inflame their political bases, it only makes it harder to address in government. This is especially the case with entitlements since they cut into the DNA of each party and have defined the dividing lines between them for decades – at least until Trump came along and took over the GOP.

Ever since the New Deal reforms of Franklin Roosevelt, who was president from 1933 to 1945, Democrats – through presidents Lyndon Johnson, Barack Obama and Biden, especially – have sought to use government power to secure the living standards and health care of less well-off and elderly Americans. Republicans, from 1980s President Ronald Reagan onwards, have increasingly sought to find ways to shift the burden of some of this care to the private sector and to reduce or eliminate government’s role in an attempt to whittle away the New Deal reforms of FDR and the Great Society program of LBJ, who was president in the 1960s. They have often paid a heavy price. Republican President George W. Bush’s failed attempt to partially privatize Social Security contributed to a disastrous second term. And Trump still rails against former House Speaker Paul Ryan, who promoted a similar plan.

While raising the alarm about threats to social programs for seniors might be a shrewd political tactic – especially in mobilizing older voters more likely to show up at the polls – it usually does nothing to address the program’s increasingly dire solvency challenges.

The latest Congressional Budget Office projection found that Social Security’s retirement trust fund could be exhausted by 2032. At that point, with fewer workers paying into the program and with a rapidly aging population, benefits could be cut by at least 20%, CNN’s Tami Luhby reported. Medicare is even more precarious since its hospital insurance trust fund, known as Part A, will only be able to fully pay scheduled benefits until 2028, its trustees said in their most recent forecast.

Biden, who released a new budget on Thursday that will help shape the message of his likely reelection bid, has proposed a plan to raise taxes on people earning more than $400,000 a year to shore up the program and would expand the range of drugs for which its managers can negotiate prices. He says the move would keep Medicare solvent until 2050 and would involve no cuts in benefits. The president also wants to target those who earn more than $400,000 with increasing payroll taxes to secure Social Security for the future. There is an infinitesimal chance, however, that the Republican-led House will agree to tax increases, so Biden’s plan represents more a device to deliver a political message than a viable plan.

Despite warning his fellow Republicans to avoid cutting these programs, it’s unclear how Trump would save them if he wins back the White House – and doing nothing isn’t an option. And while other Republicans insist they don’t want to cut benefits or raise taxes, it’s unclear how they can square the circle.

Florida Sen. Rick Scott has now excluded Social Security and Medicare from his proposal for all spending programs to be reviewed every five years. His original plan, released when he was leading the Senate GOP’s campaign arm, sparked the ire of his Republican Senate colleagues, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who quickly identified it as a political liability. That hasn’t stopped Biden from repeatedly claiming that it represents Republican policy.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has, meanwhile, said that cuts to Social Security and Medicare are “completely off the table” in what he insists must be negotiations with Biden over raising the government’s borrowing limit later this year. But that position has put him in a bind because it means that in order for the GOP to honor their pledge to slash spending, they will probably have to take aim at other social programs that could also prove unpopular with voters.

America is not the only country staring down a crisis.

French President Emmanuel Macron sparked nationwide strikes and protests with his plan to raise the retirement age to 64 from 62. Even China’s Communist Party is struggling as a falling birthrate threatens to inflict severe costs on the world’s most dynamic emerging economy.

Back in the US, whoever wins the 2024 elections for the White House and Congress, there seems no easily identifiable solution to safeguard these vital programs on which millions of Americans depend. And time is running out.