Millions of current and future retirees were no doubt hoping that President Trump would use last night’s speech to Congress to reaffirm his promises not to touch Social Security and Medicare. Instead, the President ducked and covered. He did not even utter the words “Social Security” or “Medicare” in his entire hour-long address. As for Medicaid – which millions of American seniors rely upon for skilled nursing care – the President only touched on it once, with a veiled reference to converting guaranteed benefits into block grants, which would hurt beneficiaries.
This begs the question – why the silence on Social Security and Medicare? After all, during the campaign the President broke with Republican orthodoxy and repeatedly promised not to cut either earned benefit program. “I am going to protect and save your Social Security and your Medicare. You made a deal a long time ago,” he told a crowd of supporters in November. The most likely explanation for omitting America’s retirement security programs from last night’s speech is that the President knows his fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill vehemently disagree with him.
There are proposals in both the House and Senate to cut and privatize Social Security and Medicare. In fact, voucherizing Medicare is one of Speaker Paul Ryan’s highest priorities. Perhaps the President did not want to unnecessarily ruffle feathers on the Hill last night. If so, his refusal to recommit to protecting Social Security and Medicare is not an encouraging sign. If he’s afraid to even mention his position in a speech to Congress, he may roll over on campaign promises under pressure from the Congressional GOP.
President Trump may also be leaving himself wiggle room in negotiations with Congress over Social Security and Medicare. The problem is, any compromise on his promise will hurt seniors and people with disabilities who depend on these programs, whether it’s cutting benefits, raising the retirement age, or trimming COLAs. He may also be setting up a dodge, where the Congress agrees not to cut Social Security or Medicare for current retirees while leaving open the possibility of downsizing or privatizing both programs for younger Americans. This approach is based on the falsehood that cutting benefits for future retirees doesn’t hurt current seniors, and cynically pits one generation against the others for political expediency. Mark Miller of Reuters has an excellent piece today explaining this ploy:
“The [Republicans’] political goal will be to defang public opposition, since younger workers tend not to focus much on retirement when it is several decades away. But that approach is not going to work. Retirees and their advocacy groups will fiercely resist cutting benefits down the road, because they understand the critical importance of Social Security and Medicare benefits. They also care about the future retirement of their own children. – Mark Miller, Reuters
Social Security and Medicare are commitments that the government made to working class Americans who paid into the system most of their lives. The President could have confirmed that commitment last night and comforted seniors who are worried about losing their retirement security and healthcare. His silence on Capitol Hill was not reassuring.