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The simple politics of Biden’s focus on Social Security

President Biden was not satisfied with simply using his State of the Union address to call out Republicans for — in his telling, anyway — wanting to cut funding for Social Security and Medicare. He followed that claim up with a trip to Florida on Thursday in which he again painted the party with as broad a brush as possible on the subject.

“I know that a lot of Republicans, their dream is to cut Social Security and Medicare,” Biden said. “Well, let me say this: If that’s your dream, I’m your nightmare.”

The crux of Biden’s claim about the opposition is a proposal from Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) that would mandate a five-year sunsetting period for all federal spending — including Medicare and Social Security. They could be reauthorized, of course, but there’s no guarantee that they would be. This isn’t the only rumbling about potentially cutting the programs, mind you; while many Republicans have loudly rejected such cuts, some have quietly noodled over them. After all, cutting federal spending without cutting these programs or raising taxes is tremendously difficult.

But Biden is going bigger than that, as that quote suggests. He just knows, you know, “a lot of Republicans” who hold this position. And the reason he’s framing it like that is because the idea of cutting these programs is deeply unpopular.

Last year, FiveThirtyEight released polling conducted by Ipsos asking Americans if they supported reducing funding for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Americans did not. Only 8 percent of the country supported that idea, including only 12 percent of Republicans.

In the same time period, Marquette Law School asked Americans to prioritize issues for the incoming Congress. Less than a third of respondents thought that Scott’s sunsetting idea was a priority, though the figure was slightly higher among Republicans. Still, less than half of Republicans supported the idea and, in fact, it was the least popular offering of the 20 presented.

Over the years, the General Social Survey has asked Americans whether they think Social Security gets too little funding, too much or the right amount. Consistently, most Americans say the program gets too little. After a surge in concern in the 1990s (as President Clinton was focusing on the issue), the percentage saying it got too little funding fell. In recent surveys, though, that sentiment has rebounded.

This is in part because of a sharp increase in the number of older Americans in each party who say that there is too little funding for the program. It used to be the case that Republicans over 65 thought Social Security got the right amount of funding. But in recent years, that’s changed dramatically.

Not only have older Republicans been much more likely to view Social Security as underfunded, there are also more older Republicans. In the General Social Survey, the average age of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents is now above 50. Washington Post analysis of the voter file indicates that nearly a third of the GOP is age 65 or older.

In other words, Biden’s not only dumping an unpopular policy in the laps of the Republican Party, he’s pitting them against a big chunk of their supporters. The political gambit is obvious: accuse the opposition of wanting to slash a program used by seniors in Florida — where more than 1 in 5 residents are age 65 or older, compared to 17 percent nationally.

Whether they believe Biden, of course, is a whole different issue.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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