Social Security has quickly become a huge 2024 campaign talking point.
It’s coming up again and again, most often from the mouth of Donald Trump. The former president was in Iowa earlier this week where he went on an extended riff on the topic during a campaign rally nominally intended to be about education. As in his video messages and other campaign trail mentions, Trump promised to preserve the program and criticized other Republicans like Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) for considering cuts.
And he’s not alone. His rivals are putting forth the outlines of their own plans and presenting a clear choice for voters while outside groups organize to place the issue top of mind once voting begins next year.
And experts note that this is far from a theoretical debate. A possible insolvency in 10 years could lead to benefit cuts if Washington doesn’t act, and that conversation may need to occur during the next presidential administration.
“There’s a lot of hard work that you need to do and so you can’t do that two months before the exhaustion day; you’ve got to start years in advance,” Mark Warshawsky, a former deputy commissioner at the Social Security Administration who is now at the American Enterprise Institute, said in an interview this week.
He added that a myriad of fiscal problems – from possible Medicare and Social Security insolvency to the overall deficit – will require Washington to come together in a “grander bargain” sooner rather than later and ”that may well be in the next administration, regardless of whether it’s a Republican or a Democrat.”
Former President Donald Trump holds a campaign rally with supporters in Davenport, Iowa on March 13, 2023. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)
A recent government trustees report found that Social Security only has the funds to continue paying out 100% of benefits through 2034. After that, benefits could be decreased by over 20%.
“10 years will come rather quickly and if we don’t come up with a solution, then it will become very dire,” added finStream.tv Co-Founder Robert Powell in a Yahoo Finance live appearance this week.
Story continues‘He wanted to decimate it’
Politically, the issue carries extra political saliency in early voting states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina — with all three states having a bigger share of people 65 or over than the country as a whole, according to the Population Reference Bureau. And then ever-important Florida and its legions of retirees are likely to vote just a few weeks later.
The Iowa AARP has already launched a series of Social Security events in that state promising more action to focus candidates on the issue between now and next year’s caucuses. In 2020, the group convened influential candidate forums on retirement issues.
And former President Trump has made Social Security a standard part of his stump speech saying this week that DeSantis “voted against Social Security, that’s a bad one,” on Monday during an extended riff in Davenport. “He wanted to decimate it.”
Trump was referring to votes that DeSantis cast during his time in Congress on non-binding budget resolutions that pushed for the raising the retirement age and slowed Social Security’s spending growth. Other comments from DeSantis during that era included words of support for privatizing Social Security.
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Trump has made the issue central to his campaign and again pledged this week “I will not be cutting Medicare and I will not be cutting Social Security.”
DeSantis has distanced himself from his past position on the issue telling Fox News recently “we’re not going to mess with Social Security as Republicans” but has yet to offer detailed comments on his plans and skipped the issue entirely during his own recent campaign-style stop in Iowa.
‘You focus on the new generation’
But a bit under the radar, a substantive discussion has been taking place on the program among other candidates and possible candidates.
Nikki Haley recently unveiled her ideas on the issue telling Iowa voters that she would change the retirement age for young Americans and also limit Social Security and Medicare benefits for wealthier Americans.
“You focus on the new generation, you focus on what’s next,” she said at the town hall event, adding that Democratic proposals to shore up the program by raising taxes are “the lazy way out.”
Republican presidential candidate and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley during a campaign stop in Iowa in February. (REUTERS/Scott Morgan)
Another possible candidate, former vice president Mike Pence, also recently waded into the issue. He told an audience – in a video that was exclusively obtained by Yahoo News – that he wants to reform the program and it should be on the table to “give younger Americans the ability to take a portion of their Social Security withholdings and put that into a private savings account.”
Warshawsky says he has been pleasantly surprised by the seriousness of some of the ideas, saying the difficult overall fiscal situation “has changed the conversation [but] there are so many changes that are needed to get the program working in a modern economy.”
The emerging debate also comes as welcome news to Democratic politicians like President Joe Biden who see a political upside when the issue comes up, and have been egging Republicans on for months. While the president offered little on Social Security in his recent budget proposal, focusing instead on Medicare, he has charged that Republicans want to make politically unpopular benefit cuts in venues from his State of the Union address on down.
In an unusual twist, Biden and Trump are in alignment here. They, for now, bring up the issue as a possible weapon against Republicans—and to assure voters that the system would be safest only in their hands.
Ben Werschkul is Washington correspondent for Yahoo Finance.
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