Trump faces backlash after discussing Social Security

Trump faces backlash after discussing Social Security

Former President Trump’s remarks about “cutting” Social Security has given a major opening to President Biden while underscoring how the entitlement program has become a third rail in politics.

Trump in a CNBC interview said there was “a lot you can do in terms of entitlements, in terms of cutting.”

His campaign quickly clarified that the former president only wants to cut waste, but his initial remarks created soundbites Biden will use against him from now until November and that Democratic congressional candidates will also seize upon.

Barrett Marson, a GOP strategist in Arizona, said the ambiguity of Trump’s latest comments might blunt their impact.

“But in some ways, that doesn’t matter because … it’s on tape, and the Biden campaign will almost assuredly use that tape a lot, and the Trump campaign will have to spend time and money to refute that,” he said. 

Democrats have repeatedly attacked Republicans for suggesting cuts to Social Security. As recently as 2022, Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) hit his GOP opponent, Blake Masters, with a barrage of negative ads for proposals to reform Social Security, Marson noted.  

Arizona has the highest retiree population among 2024 swing states in a Biden-Trump rematch, underscoring its importance. But it could also be a big factor in a number of other places, said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and partner at Firehouse Strategies.

“Most of the voters are going to be older, and either currently on these programs are set to get these programs in the next decade or so,” he said. “So I would say they’re going to be important everywhere.”

Conant said Trump, who often speaks off the cuff in interviews and at rallies, has to be “very careful not to make similar gaffes in the future.”

“Unless he actually wants to reform entitlements, in which case he needs to go on the offense and explain why his proposals wouldn’t hurt,” Conant said.

The walking back of the remarks suggests Trump may want to just signal he backs the status quo, a position both Conant and Marson said would be politically safer.

“I think most of the electorate doesn’t care about specific policies. If you say you’re going to protect Social Security, that’s enough. You don’t have to have a plan,” said Marson. 

President Biden promised to “protect and strengthen” Social Security and Medicare in his State of the Union address earlier this month, in the same breath that he pledged to make the wealthy “pay their fair share.”

Working Americans currently pay a Social Security tax on earnings up to $168,600 but are not taxed beyond that amount. Biden has proposed also taxing wages above $400,000 to help shore up Social Security, meaning the bracket between $168,600 and $400,000 would not face an increase.

Social Security is projected to become insolvent by 2033, at which point cuts could become inevitable without congressional action. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates these cuts to the program to maintain its solvency could cost a typical retired couple $17,400 per year.

Maya MacGuineas, president of the bipartisan group, said neither major presidential contender is taking a serious approach to the issue. 

“I would describe both Trump and Biden’s [approach] as reckless, procrastinating, demagoguing and dangerous to the health of the program,” she said. 

“Both of them are so busy attacking each other that in their time in office, they have done nothing to put forward a plan and the policies to save the program from insolvency, which should be the number one priority.”

MacGuineas said Biden’s latest budget failed to put forward a coherent plan to increase funding to Social Security, despite his commitments to protect the program. 

She criticized politicians for trying to score political points on the issue, but also said the media and advocacy groups were overly alarmist when any politician even suggests scaling back benefits, making a reasonable debate on the topic almost impossible. 

“It is a provocative issue. And everybody has kind of conspired to make it more provocative in a way that scares seniors and puts off real and important changes,” she said. 

The Alliance for Retired Americans, which has endorsed Biden in 2024, is among the advocacy groups that jumped on Trump’s comments this week. Its executive director, Richard Fiesta, pointed out Trump’s past comments sending similar signals. 

During an interview with CNBC in 2020, Trump said he would “take a look at that” when asked about the future of entitlements, and in a 2000 book called Social Security a “huge Ponzi scheme,” and suggested raising the age for eligibility. 

Fiesta said his group opposed any efforts to scale back benefits over time, and believes the program can be fixed by increasing revenue, as Biden is proposing. 

“We feel very strongly that our security benefits are modest, at best,” he said, noting the average recipient receives about $1,800 per month. “So the idea of cutting benefits or raising the retirement age … are just unfair to working people.”

In a statement to The Hill, Trump’s campaign declined to offer any specifics about his current plans to fix Social Security but said he would protect entitlements. 

“President Trump delivered on his promise to protect Social Security and Medicare in his first term, and President Trump will continue to strongly protect Social Security and Medicare in his second term,” Karoline Leavitt, the campaign’s national press secretary, said in an emailed statement. 

The Biden campaign said the president’s past remarks on the issue speak for themselves. 

Joseph Antos, a senior fellow in health care and retirement policy at the American Enterprise Institute, said neither candidate would be able to avoid the issue if they end up in the White House — and would need to show more ideological flexibility to get anything done. 

He said both Trump and Biden were offering “meaningless phrases” and needed to figure out how to talk about “restructuring” Social Security and Medicare in a way that doesn’t stoke fears of taking benefits away. 

“Whoever is president, will they be able to keep their wits about them and have enough political clout — which I would guess neither one would — to get real legislation that begins to make some serious but incremental reforms to both of those programs,” he said. 

But Antos said there was little political upside for Trump in expounding on the issue ahead of the election, casting doubt on the possibility that Biden will agree to a debate.

“If there was a debate … then he’d have to actually bone up on some of this stuff, so that he’d be able to spar with Biden,” he said of Trump. 

“So he shouldn’t waste his time investing in learning a few lines about details of policy.”

Joseph Choi contributed.

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