Like a mirror that reflects one’s ideology back at the viewer, and no more so than during a general-election year, the political players saw what they wanted, and what they thought was most politically useful to their side, in the reports Monday by the Social Security and Medicare trustees on the long-term prospects for those two entitlement programs.
For their part, those who support programs’ essential structure preferred to look at the glass as half full. Yes, the latest forecast suggested that Social Security would in 2033 exhaust the combined trust funds from which both the retirement and disability payments are drawn, three years sooner than was predicted last year.
Meanwhile, the Medicare trustees said the latest forecast still called for that program to exhaust the money with which it pays the hospital bills of the elderly by 2024, same as last year’s forecast, while the outlook for other parts of the program worsened.
But those who defended the social insurance programs against those they said would dismantle them, pushed back against the idea that the programs were flawed beyond repair.
For instance, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, one of the trustees, said Tuesday:
“As today’s reports make clear, these programs have the resources they need to fulfill their commitments to these Americans for years to come. But what these reports also reinforce is that we must take steps to keep these programs whole for the future…
“… The President is… committed to keeping Social Security strong for future generations, particularly as more private employers move away from defined benefit plans…
“… At the same time, adjustments to Social Security and Medicare must be balanced and evenhanded. We will not support proposals that sow the seeds of their destruction in the name of reform, or that shift the cost of health care to seniors in order to sustain tax cuts for the most fortunate Americans.
Thus the release of the reports became an opportunity for Geithner to remind voters that in its view, the Obama administration was a staunch defender of the nation’s most popular entitlements even though it accepted the need for gradual changes to make the programs more sustainable.
Since Geithner was speaking as an administration and not campaign official, the name of the presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, or certain congressional Republicans, went unspoken.
Republicans were less circumspect, however. Lanhee Chen, the Romney campaign’s policy director, said in a statement:
“Today’s report reminds us that Medicare must be reformed and strengthened or it will soon collapse. It also reminds us that President Obama continues to play shell games with the health care of our seniors, taking hundreds of billions from Medicare to spend on Obamacare and now using a bogus experiment to conceal the damage until after the election. President Obama has offered no serious plan of his own, preferring instead to attack and point fingers over problems he refuses to address. Mitt Romney has a comprehensive plan to preserve Medicare for today’s seniors while ensuring that it remains strong for future generations.”
Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) also singled out the president and congressional Democrats in a statement:
“Today’s report confirms what Republicans have long said: The biggest threat to Medicare and Social Security is doing nothing, and the refusal of the White House and congressional Democrats to address our fiscal challenges will have devastating consequences for America’s seniors. Last year, we had an opportunity to begin to deal with our debt crisis and help save Social Security and Medicare for future generations of seniors, but the president lost his courage, moved the goalposts and demanded tax increases on small business job creators. The nation needs leaders who understand how our economy works; who understand we can’t tax our way back to prosperity; who have the courage needed to confront our nation’s serious problems.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), the House Budget Committee chairman whose controversial proposals for entirely remaking the entitlement programs, also used the reports as a chance to claim vindication for his approach and chide President Obama:
“… In the heart of their retirement, current seniors are scheduled to be hit with a 25 percent across-the-board benefit cut when Social Security’s trust funds are exhausted. Meanwhile, Medicare’s looming insolvency puts at risk the critical access to care that seniors have come to expect from this important program.
“Rather than work together to advance solutions, the president has opted to play politics with seniors’ care. The President and his party’s leaders continue to distort efforts to save and strengthen Medicare in an effort to distract seniors from the consequences of their health care law.
Ryan has become a foil for Obama and other Democrats who have used his plan to change Social Security into a voucher program for future seniors as a way to make many voters view congressional Republicans as a threat to the continued existence of popular program that’s nearly 80 years old.
Regardless of which side of the ideological divide observers were on, there was agreement that something had to be done even if that’s where any consensus ended.
What seemed safe to say, however, was that it was virtually impossible that anything would be done this of all years with presidential and congressional campaigns raging.