Shortly after their reelection victory in 2012, I was invited as the head of our national seniors’ organization to a meeting at the White House with President Obama and then-Vice President Biden. Social Security and Medicare were prominent issues in that year’s race between Obama/Biden and Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). I took the opportunity to thank Vice President Biden for defending both programs – specifically, his pushing back on Romney and Ryan’s proposals to privatize seniors’ earned benefits. “Their ideas are old and their ideas are bad, and they would eliminate the guarantee” of Social Security and Medicare, Biden declared during the 2012 vice presidential debates.
Fast-forward to March 9, 2023 in Philadelphia. I attended the president’s unveiling of his 2024 White House budget, which was historic in terms of its commitment to strengthening Medicare’s finances and lowering prescription drug prices. The president also included a definitive declaration of support for Social Security. “The Administration is committed to protecting and strengthening Social Security and opposes any attempt to cut Social Security benefits for current or future recipients.”
This was the same Joe Biden that I met with more than ten years earlier, a rock-solid advocate for Social Security. As President, he has spent the better part of the past year pushing back on Republican proposals that would cut retirees’ earned benefits. And yet, Hill Republicans actually have begun questioning the President’s commitment to Social Security. Last week, none other than 2012 contender, Senator Mitt Romney, grilled Biden’s budget chief, demanding to know why the President didn’t include a specific Social Security proposal in his 2024 White House budget.
While it’s true that President Biden offered no concrete plan of his own, his budget declares unequivocal support for boosting Social Security. In the budget document, the president says he is looking forward to working with Congress “to responsibly strengthen Social Security by ensuring that high-income individuals pay their fair share.” That is a crucial statement of principle in support of a solution that large majorities of Americans support.
In fact, Democrats have introduced legislation that would keep the Social Security trust fund solvent beyond 2035 and expand — not cut — benefits. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) Social Security Expansion Act and Rep. John Larson’s (D-Conn.) Social Security 2100 Act would strengthen the program’s finances by asking the wealthy to contribute more in payroll taxes, currently capped at $160,200 in annual income.
This is the opposite of the Republican approach, which is to cut and privatize Social Security, if not for current beneficiaries, then for future generations. While Republicans might not call their proposals “cuts,” that’s exactly what raising the retirement age to 70, means testing, adopting a more miserly COLA formula, or privatizing the program would do. Republicans are on the record with these proposals — no matter how much they deny it.
Meanwhile, no GOP member of Congress has endorsed either Sanders’ or Larson’s bills, because they apparently refuse to consider any commonsense revenue measures such as adjusting the payroll wage cap — which would bring billions of dollars more into the system. (Millionaires stopped paying into Social Security last month while most workers contribute year-round.) Instead, Republicans and conservative pundits portray “entitlement reform” (aka “cuts”) as inevitable, unavoidable. Translation: we have no choice but to slash benefits for someone at some point. But there are better and fairer choices. Most Republicans simply won’t acknowledge them.
What is the point of President Biden introducing his own plan when there are two credible Democratic plans on offer in Congress, ready to be debated on their own merits — with the president able to engage in the process at the appropriate time? There certainly is no upside for the president in negotiating with Republicans about Social Security right now if their default position is: ‘No new revenues whatsoever; future beneficiaries must bear the cost of strengthening the program.’ Unlike many Capitol Hill conservatives and billionaire-backed think tanks, most Americans realize that growing old is becoming increasingly expensive. Retirees on fixed incomes would be devastated by benefit cuts — now or later.
The last time Congress passed comprehensive Social Security reform (in 1983), the impetus did not come directly from the White House. According to the Urban Institute, the catalyst for action was a 1983 op-ed by then Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bob Dole (R-Kan.), “hinting that tax increases might play a role in solving Social Security’s problems.”
Dole’s op-ed, writes the Urban Institute’s Rudolph Penner, was “a crack in the Republican wall of opposition to revenue increases” and opened the door for a bipartisan deal. Democrats and Republicans came together to pass the Social Security Amendments of 1983, which helped to keep the program financially healthy up until the present day’s challenges: lower birth rates, a growing senior population, and massive wealth inequality. None of these trends are retirees’ fault. That is why we have social insurance, to protect Americans against what President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the father of Social Security, called the “hazards and vicissitudes of life.”
Since FDR’s time, few presidents have put forth their own Social Security plans, deferring to Congress to strengthen the program (which it did in 1939, 1950, 1954, 1972, 1977 and 1983, among others). Today, Joe Biden is doing something far more meaningful than accepting the GOP’s bait. Instead, he has used the bully pulpit to urge Congress to act, while threatening to veto any proposals to weaken Social Security. “If your dream is to cut Social Security,” the president recently declared, “Then I am your nightmare.”
During the State of the Union speech, President Biden even cajoled Republicans on live TV to take Social Security cuts “off the table.” Of course, that has not stopped prominent members of the GOP from floating proposals that defy that promise, with the caveat that they don’t want to tamper with today’s seniors’ benefits — only their children and grandchildren’s. The truth is, Gen Z and Millennials will rely on their Social Security benefits even more than current seniors do. (See: massive student debt, disappearing pensions, and the ever-widening wealth gap making it harder to save for retirement.)
Polling indicates that bipartisan majorities of Americans favor the Democrats’ approach to strengthening (and expanding) Social Security. They want benefits expanded, not cut, with the wealthy contributing more. The solutions put forward by Republicans remain underwater in public opinion. The American people can trust President Biden not only to protect retirees from benefit cuts — but to be a champion for preserving the program so that every worker knows that Social Security will be there for them when they retire.
Though my meeting with Vice President Biden was more than ten years ago, I distinctly remember President Obama chiming in, “Joe has always been vocal when it comes to supporting Social Security!” Of course, when I shook Biden’s hand at the end of our meeting, I did not know that he would become president less than a decade later. But I knew that seniors had a true champion in the White House. And I’m reassured that they still do. When it comes to Americans’ retirement security, Joe Biden is in our corner — and we’re in his.
Max Richtman is president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare and former staff director at the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging.