Biden urged to go big on Social Security as a way to beat Trump

Progressive groups have been pitching the white House on the idea. Whether the reelection campaign uses it is another matter.

Nov 20, 2023 - 19:42
Biden urged to go big on Social Security as a way to beat Trump

It's a story Joe Biden loves to tell: Midway through his State of the Union address, as the president accused Republicans of trying to cut entitlements like Social Security, loud objections from the House chamber suddenly turned his speech into a negotiation.

Pausing to spar with GOP lawmakers, Biden extracted a promise to take entitlement cuts off the table in the upcoming debt ceiling showdown, securing a major victory before talks even began.

"I never thought my third State of the Union address would be negotiated on the floor of the United States Congress," Biden mused afterward. "But it worked."

That unscripted moment has taken on outsized political significance in the months since, held up as an example of Biden’s negotiating prowess and his commitment to the social safety net.

But among Democrats bracing for a tight 2024 contest, some now want him to go further.

Progressives have pitched Biden officials and Democratic leaders in recent months on endorsing a plan to expand Americans' Social Security benefits, according to several people involved in the informal discussions.

The proposal, they argue, would be broadly popular with an electorate that ranks Social Security among the top issues they care deeply about, especially among seniors more likely to vote. And after Republicans swore off cuts — for the time being — it would allow Biden to stake out a new contrast with the GOP, one painting him as more supportive of the cherished social insurance program.

"The only weakness that Democrats have on their Social Security policies is not enough people know that it's them," said Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, one of the groups advocating for the idea. "The way to get Republicans even more on the back foot about their plans to cut Social Security is to draw that incredibly clear distinction that Democrats want to expand, Republicans want to cut."

Biden embraced Social Security expansion during the 2020 Democratic primary, proposing to boost benefits for the lowest-income retirees and shore up Social Security's main trust fund by raising taxes on those making $400,000 or more a year. But faced with slim congressional majorities once he took office, Biden largely dropped the idea.

Three years later, progressive groups want him to revisit it, in part because the candidate he’s likely to face, Donald Trump, has publicly insisted he doesn’t want to cut entitlement programs (even though he previously backed such policies).

Polling presented this fall to top White House officials and other leading Democrats by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Data for Progress found just 41 percent trusted Biden more than Trump to safeguard Social Security benefits. More than 4 in 10 were also skeptical that Republican candidates who had called for cutting benefits or raising the retirement age would follow through on it if elected.

Biden officials have expressed openness to the case for benefit expansions, Lawson and others who talked with them said, though the campaign is still early in the process of building out a 2024 policy platform and remains noncommittal on the idea.

"Donald Trump, Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis and the rest of the MAGA Republicans have repeatedly campaigned on gutting Social Security and Medicare and have the records to back it up," campaign spokesperson Ammar Moussa said in a statement. "Joe Biden will not let that happen, and we'll make certain the millions of Americans who have paid for Social Security their entire lives now that when they head to vote next November."

There’s skepticism among some in the president’s orbit who say Biden’s message on protecting benefits versus Republicans seeking cuts is already well established. They question whether adding a brand new idea to the mix would confuse matters. The president is also already planning to run on a slew of concrete accomplishments that may mean more to voters than aspirational ideas like Social Security expansion.

And as Democrats are wont to do, some have gotten caught up in the underlying policy specifics. They warn the party would need to settle debates over which retirees would benefit, and ultimately how the entire thing would be paid for. In addition to Biden's 2020 proposal, several lawmakers — including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) — had longstanding expansion plans of their own.

"They probably don't want to open that can of worms," said Dean Baker, a progressive economist who has long supported expanding Social Security.

The progressive groups pushing for Social Security expansion aren't lobbying for a specific proposal. But they do have an answer for how to pay for the benefits: Taxing the wealthy.

"It just really puts all of the pieces in place, and you can't muddy it up," said Lawson. "Tax the wealthy more in order to increase Social Security benefits. Electorally, this is a Democratic wedge issue."

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