Why Trump Should Lead on Social Security Reform

Why Trump Should Lead on Social Security Reform
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Why Trump Should Lead on Social Security Reform
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
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It’s time for President Trump to think out of the box, to be a salesman and a disruptor, to lead a bipartisan effort, to reach out to the center of the electorate -- and reform Social Security. Don’t laugh, we need the fix and he needs the win. He can make a deal with Democrats, make his party swallow it, and go down in history for actually solving a terrible problem so politically frightening that few ever dare to mention it. 

Heard any of those Democrats running for president mention the coming 20%-25% cuts to Social Security once it reaches insolvency in 2035? Nope. How about the Republicans who control the Senate majority, or the Democrats who control the House majority? No way. 

While candidate Trump promised he wouldn’t cut Social Security, he said he would “save” it through increased economic growth that would bring in more payroll taxes. “We’re going to save your Social Security without killing it like so many people want to do,” he said during his 2016 campaign. Thus far the growth hasn’t “saved” Social Security. 

Trump should sound the alarm about the peril so many Americans would face should those cuts kick in just 16 years, and stress that the longer government waits to address the coming crisis, the deeper the cuts will be. By shoring up the program now he could not only comfort current beneficiaries but appeal to those many millions of Americans having to plan their retirement for the very window of time when the Social Security trust fund runs dry.

To win next year, President Trump needs this more than he knows. His governance is losing voters, not winning them over. Yes, deregulation, combined with a tax cut, led to terrific economic growth. But his foreign policy adventures are scattershot and/or dangerous, his trade war is deeply unpopular, and his immigration policies/threats/antics face majority disapproval, and that was before we learned about the government-sponsored child abuse at southern border detention centers at the price of $775 per kid per day. 

President Trump is fortunate congressional Republicans passed a tax bill, without his help, but a majority of voters disapprove of it. And promises of a new health care plan -- which Trump continues to make -- remain a bad joke as nothing is coming and GOP failure on this issue was the number one reason Democrats won the House back last November. While we heard about all that “Art of the Deal”-making he was so good at, 2 ½ years in to his first term we know he’s not. Ask Kim Jung Un -- you don’t need to make concessions to get love letters, legitimacy, high-profile summits, a nuclear stockpile and an invitation to the White House.

Yet Social Security reform – yes, that “third rail” of U.S. politics -- looks like a great opportunity to improve Trump’s political fortunes on an issue of critical importance to most Americans. Trump should know that 97% of the elderly receive Social Security or will, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and that older Americans vote more often than any other group among us. But not enough workers are entering the system as 10,000 baby boomers retire each day, and without repair the coming cuts will crush approximately half of the country’s retirees. Those with lower incomes would suffer the most. 

Sure, most members of Congress are pretty certain nothing will happen until the emergency hits, a deadline that forces action in 2035, and not a month before. And Trump, who lives and governs in the short term, would clearly like to kick this off to the suckers in power when the crap hits the fan. Yet Robert Reischauer, a former Social Security trustee who also once ran the Congressional Budget Office, said the beneficiaries will pay a steep price for the government’s procrastination. “[W]hen the crisis eventually comes, as it will, it is likely to be much, much worse because of the delay,” he told the New York Times. 

Trump should embrace the heavy lift and stabilize the program, and since he doesn’t care about deficits he is the Republican president to do it. Let’s face it -- all that talk about balancing the budget in an eight-year presidency was hooey; the guy’s a big spender. Tax cuts, increased military spending, the wall, infrastructure … the agenda Trump ran on was a pricey one.  

Much has changed since 1983, when Social Security was last reformed -- there are more higher-income households and people are living longer, but income inequality is much worse. Trump speaks often about the market’s success, though much of the country doesn’t own stock, including many of his voters. 

Why not dare the Democrats to work with him on this? If he moves far enough to their priorities he can neutralize, if not shut down, their demagoguery. And Trump shouldn’t worry about Republicans rediscovering their lost fiscal rectitude. Sure, they used to crave entitlement reform, the kind that cuts without raising taxes, but now they will do whatever Trump wants. Seriously, any noise acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and other former budget hawks make on spending cuts is just for laughs. They spend freely now, and defend whatever Trump does -- how could they possibly turn on him now over Social Security? Surely some savings could be found, and even if it prolonged the life of the program for 10 years, voters would appreciate a solution, as well as bipartisanship. If Trump worked across the aisle now, more voters would believe he could do so again in a second term.

The president should challenge the House Democratic majority, and the Senate GOP majority too, to start work on a consensus plan as soon as the budget deadlines pass at the start of the fiscal year, Oct. 1, and the debt ceiling has been raised and the government funded. 

Reform would clearly require a combination of means testing and raising the eligibility age -- both of which could be phased in, but those changes would be accompanied by some new spending. New spending is not a good thing, but it would be far more popular than the spending the president has been pulling from various pockets of the government for a border wall, and far more popular than the hole in the deficit made by his tax cut so many voters dislike. 

If the president reads up on this problem he would know how critical it is to women and minorities who consistently disapprove of him by broad margins. Latino and African American workers benefit significantly from the program because they suffer higher rates of disability and poverty, while African Americans have lower life expectancy, with survivors who depend on the benefits after death. Women, disadvantaged by taking more time off work than men and making less than men, are heavily dependent on Social Security as they have consistently put less in their savings and pensions than men. They make up 96% of the survivor beneficiaries on Social Security. Trump should champion this issue and make these voters take another look at him. 

A big challenge, of course, is that there’s no way to turn this into a TV show -- no dictators to shake hands with, borders to cross, footage of caravans, or tanks rolling around Washington, D.C., on the Fourth of July. And without optics it’s hard to hold Trump’s attention. But this endeavor would show the kind of leadership Trump hasn’t come close to, and is his ticket to the good pages in the history books. 

A.B. Stoddard is associate editor of RealClearPolitics and a columnist. 

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