Joe Biden was for cutting entitlements before he was against it.
As a senator dating back to 1984, and as vice president, Mr. Biden embraced proposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare to balance the federal budget. He often declared support for balanced budgets when he was up for reelection.
Now, as the president who is likely running for reelection, Mr. Biden is vowing never to reduce entitlements. He has staked out the position in a battle with House Republicans over spending cuts and raising the nation’s borrowing limit.
The 80-year-old president knows that seniors love a pledge against cutting entitlements, and they tend to be the most reliable voting bloc. Mr. Biden repeated his promise Thursday in the swing state of Florida, where 21% of residents are seniors, the highest level in the nation.
“I know that a lot of Republicans, their dream is to cut Social Security and Medicare,” Mr. Biden said at the University of Tampa. “If that’s your dream, I’m your nightmare. I will not cut a single Social Security or Medicare benefit.”
How times have changed.
In 1984, when Mr. Biden was running in Delaware for reelection to the U.S. Senate, he teamed up with Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa on a proposal to freeze federal spending, including Social Security cost-of-living adjustments, or COLAs. It was during the Reagan era, when cutting government spending was a more popular notion.
“When those of my friends in the Democratic and Republican Party say to me, ‘How do you expect me to vote for your proposal? Does it not freeze Social Security COLAs for one year? Are we not saying there will be no cost-of-living increases for one year?’ The answer to that is ‘Yes, that is what I am saying,’” Mr. Biden said in a Senate floor speech in April 1984.
The proposal didn’t succeed, but Mr. Biden won reelection.
If the same proposal were enacted nowadays, it would have erased an 8.7% increase in Social Security monthly benefits that went into effect this month for about 65 million seniors. Most of those seniors are facing tighter household budgets because of inflation, which has soared during Mr. Biden’s presidency.
In 1988, after Mr. Biden’s first presidential bid crashed and burned, he was still professing pride about his stance on freezing federal spending.
“I introduced an amendment, notwithstanding my quote ‘liberal’ credentials, of freezing the federal budget, absolute freeze,” Mr. Biden said at the time. “I did it for a simple reason: I sat on the Budget Committee for 11 years. And I’d find the same thing occurs every time. We’d start off with grandiose ideas of how we’re going to cut the budget. We would never touch entitlements, we would never touch the defense budget, and we couldn’t touch the interest on the debt, which meant that out of a trillion-dollar budget, that left us only $156 billion. And what we would do each year is we would go out and cut out education, food stamps, Head Start, [welfare] payments, on down the line, everything that I cared about got cut, because, at the very end, we’d say, ‘Well, we’ve got to make some cuts.’ And that would be the path of least resistance.”
In 1995, Mr. Biden voted for a balanced budget amendment despite warning that it would cut entitlements. He introduced a proposal to exclude Social Security from the balanced budget requirements, but the legislation failed.
At the time, the national debt was about $5 trillion. Today, it is more than $31 trillion.
In 2007, when he was running for president again, Mr. Biden was asked by “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert whether he would consider “looking” at curbing the costs of Social Security and Medicare.
“Absolutely,” Mr. Biden said. “Cost of living — put it all on the table. … Social Security’s not the hard one to solve. Medicare, that is the gorilla in the room, and you’ve got to put all of it on the table.”
In November 2007, before the Iowa caucuses, Mr. Biden said, “The American people know we have to fix Social Security. They know we can’t grow our way to a solution. They know we’re going to have to make some tough decisions. They’re ready to make those decisions. They’re ready to step up. We have to be ready to straightforwardly tell them what we’re about to do.”
As reported by The Intercept in 2020, Mr. Biden as vice president was involved in multiple administration attempts to cut Social Security as part of a “grand bargain with Republicans” during the Obama administration. Tea party Republicans, who couldn’t agree to any tax increases, blocked the proposals.
In 2014, Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, said Mr. Biden privately told him he was in favor of raising the retirement age and means-testing Social Security benefits.
“I asked the vice president, ‘Don’t we have to raise the age? Wouldn’t means-testing and raising the age solve the problem?’” Mr. Paul recalled. He added that Mr. Biden said, “Yes in private, but will not say it in public.”
At a Brookings Institution event in 2018, Mr. Biden referred to Republican Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s attempt to rein in the costs of entitlements.
“Now, we need to do something about Social Security and Medicare,” said Mr. Biden, proceeding to discuss means-testing.
“I don’t know a whole lot of people in the top one-tenth of 1% or the top 1% who are relying on Social Security when they retire,” Mr. Biden said. “So we need a pro-growth, progressive tax code that treats workers as job creators, as well, not just investors; that gets rid of unproductive loopholes like stepped-up basis; and it raises enough revenue to make sure that the Social Security and Medicare can stay, it still needs adjustments, but can stay; and pay for the things we all acknowledge will grow the country.”
Social Security trust funds are on track to be insolvent by 2035, when today’s 55-year-olds reach the normal retirement age and today’s youngest retirees turn 74, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
At trust fund exhaustion, CRFB said, Social Security benefits will be cut by 20% or more across the board, resulting in a $12,000 to $17,000 benefit cut for a typical couple retiring in 2035.
Mr. Biden pledged this week to take Social Security “off the books,” but he has not offered a plan to make it solvent. Many policymakers agree that the likeliest ways to extend the program are raising the retirement age (currently 67 for full retirement), raising tax contributions, trimming benefits or a mix of all three options.
On Thursday, Mr. Biden said he would shore up the entitlement programs by raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations.
“I’m going to extend the Medicare Trust Fund by at least two decades,” the president said.
The CRFB said the Medicare Hospital Insurance trust fund, which funds Part A benefits, will be depleted by 2028, when today’s newest beneficiaries turn 70.
Medicare payments to hospitals will be cut automatically by 10%, “likely through payment delays that would jeopardize access to care,” the organization said.
Republican lawmakers say Mr. Biden is flat-out lying about their various proposals to control the costs of entitlements. Sen. Rick Scott, Florida Republican, said Mr. Biden is falling back on “the made-up old charge that Republicans want to cut Medicare and Social Security.”
“Biden is the one who has said these programs should be cut,” Mr. Scott said in a statement. “The nicest thing you can say about our president is that he is very, very confused.”
The president on Thursday pointed to Mr. Scott’s proposal that would require Social Security and Medicare to be reauthorized by Congress every five years. He said benefits are “likely to get cut drastically” under such a plan. Then Mr. Biden suggested that his effort to portray Republicans as entitlement cutters was working and he believed Mr. Scott was retreating from his proposal.
“Maybe he’s changed his mind. Maybe he’s seen the Lord,” the president said.