Joe Biden’s record on Social Security isn’t perfect, but Donald Trump’s is far worse
During the Democratic primary, Joe Biden rightfully took heat for his past openness to cutting Social Security benefits. But now that the primary is over, supporters of Social Security must examine how Biden’s record on the issue compares not to Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, but to Donald Trump. The difference is stark.
“Governments can err, Presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales. Better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”
When Trump ran for president in 2016, he sought to hide his cold-blooded hostility toward Social Security and those whose economic security it protects. But he revealed his contemptuousness, his icy indifference, before running for office and again once in power.
In 2000, well before running for president, Trump displayed how elitist, how ignorant, how “frozen in the ice of [his] own indifference” he is about the lives of America’s working families. Advocating raising the Social Security retirement age to 70, Trump sneeringly asked “how many times will you really want to take that trailer to the Grand Canyon?” He added that he “plan[s] to work forever,” implying that everyone else should, as well — again completely indifferent to the lives of those not born multimillionaires and working as nurses, preschool teachers, cashiers and in other physically demanding jobs.
Trump made clear that he would like to end Social Security as we know it. He slandered Social Security and every political leader who supports it by calling it a Ponzi scheme, and urged that it be privatized and handed over to Wall Street.
Trump did reveal, however, that he understood how out of step his views are. In a 2011 interview with Sean Hannity, Trump said that Republicans should be very careful not to openly advocate cutting Social Security, or they would pay the price politically. Using that insight during the 2016 election, Trump said he would not cut Social Security. During the Republican primary, Trump used this as a key point of contrast with the other candidates, explaining that “they want to cut it very substantially, the Republicans, and I’m not going to do that.”
Trump was correct about the stance of the Republican Party, but lying about his own position. Once in the White House, Trump embraced Republican orthodoxy on a whole host of issues, including cutting Social Security. All of Trump’s budget proposals have included billions of dollars in cuts to Social Security. In a recent FOX News town hall, he pledged that “we’ll be cutting” entitlements. “Entitlements” is DC-insider speak for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Most telling of all is Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Over and over again, Trump has demanded that Congress enact an elimination of payroll contributions, which are Social Security’s dedicated funding. As a response to the coronavirus crisis, this makes no sense. It’s slow, inefficient, and fails to get money into the pockets of those who need it most. The only reason to support this policy over better targeted, more efficient measures is if your true goal is to undermine Social Security and its self-funded status.
If Trump retains the presidency, he and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have already signaled that Social Security will be under constant threat. The program will be considerably safer in Joe Biden’s hands. Biden’s history on Social Security is far from perfect, but he is far better than Donald Trump.
Never having forgotten his working class, economically-insecure roots in Scranton, Pa., Biden is committed to improving the lives of America’s working families. But despite that focus, Biden, like most other centrist Democrats, spent decades under the influence of a billionaire-funded crusade against Social Security. The campaign’s goal was to undermine Social Security by convincing politicians, the media, and the public of the lie that, notwithstanding our being the richest country in the world at the wealthiest moment in history, Social Security is somehow no longer affordable and must be cut.
Fortunately, grassroots activists, together with a few stalwart Congressional champions, defeated this conventional, but wrongheaded, thinking and the efforts it spawned. In doing so, they exposed the billionaire-funded lies and convinced the mainstream of the Democratic Party of the wisdom of expanding Social Security with no cuts. The movement to expand, not cut, Social Security gains momentum with every passing year. Now, not a single mainstream Democrat supports cutting Social Security — and that includes Joe Biden.
Biden’s platform rules out cutting Social Security, including specific benefit cuts such as means testing. Biden supports requiring the wealthy to pay into Social Security at the same rate as the rest of us. He plans to use the additional revenue to both strengthen Social Security’s finances and expand benefits.
In sharp contrast to Trump, Biden’s response to the coronavirus crisis is not to attack Social Security. Instead, he is championing a proposal (originally from Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ron Wyden) to increase Social Security benefits by $200 a month for the duration of the crisis.
These are important steps in the right direction, but Biden should do more to overcome his past misguided support for a bipartisan “Grand Bargain” that included cuts to Social Security. Some of his closest advisors and supporters championed those ignorant views — and may still hold them. One of his top bundlers is Erskine Bowles, who co-chaired the failed Bowles-Simpson Commission and pushed hard for a package with deep, harmful Social Security cuts.
To further reassure supporters of Social Security who are rightfully concerned about his past, Biden should surround himself with friends of the program — and avoid its enemies. If Biden’s transition team is led by staffers who are closely tied to the austerity politics of the past, it will —and should — set off alarm bells.
That being said, Biden’s record on many issues, including Social Security, shows that his inclination is nearly always to be solidly in the mainstream of the Democratic Party. He is not a maverick on the right or on the left. Thanks to the hard work of many activists, the mainstream Democratic Party position is now to support expanding, not cutting, Social Security.
In stark contrast, the elites of the Republican Party are determined to cut and even destroy Social Security, albeit (as Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa has disclosed) behind closed doors. Regardless of what Trump might say when he’s trying to get reelected, he is firmly in line with that consensus.
Trump will undoubtedly attack Biden on Social Security and claim to be the real supporter of the program. But don’t be fooled. Don’t be taken in by Trump’s lies and dishonest promises. The two parties – and their respective candidates — are as far apart on Social Security as they have been in many decades. Unfortunately, no modern-day Republican politician can be trusted to protect our earned benefits. Quite the opposite.
Biden and the Democrats support expanding Social Security, with no cuts, and acting in the sunshine. Trump and the Republicans want to steal our earned benefits under the cover of darkness. For every American who supports Social Security, the choice is clear.
Nancy Altman is president of Social Security Works.