That is a pretty simple and important question. Unfortunately, most voters are likely to go to the polls this fall without knowing the answer.
If the backdrop to this question is not immediately clear, then you should be very angry at the reporters who cover the campaign. One of the items that continuously comes up in reference to the budget deficit is President Obama’s support for the plan put forward by the co-chairs of his deficit commission, Morgan Stanley director Erskine Bowles and former senator Alan Simpson. On numerous occasions, President Obama has indicated his support for this plan.
One of the items in the Bowles-Simpson plan is a reduction in the annual cost-of-living adjustment of roughly 0.3 percentage points. This would be accomplished by using a different index that, by design, would show a lower measured rate of inflation. It is important to recognize that this is an annual cut that would accumulate over time. After a retiree has been receiving benefits for ten years, the cut would be 3.0 percent; after 20 years. it would be 6 percent. If a typical retiree lives long enough to get benefits for 20, years the average benefit cut over their years of retirement would be 3 percent.
This is the most immediate cut in Social Security in the Bowles-Simpson plan, but it is not the only one. The plan also would gradually raise the age at which retirees receive full benefits to 69. It also phases in a reduction in benefits for workers whose earnings averaged more than $40,000 a year over their working lifetime.
When President Obama indicates his support for the Bowles-Simpson plan, he is indicating his support for all of these measures. Of course, he is not required to accept the plan in its entirety, but if he does oppose the cuts that the plan imposes on Social Security, it would be reasonable to expect him to state this explicitly.
In principle, this would be exactly the sort of issue where we would expect reporters to be grilling President Obama and his staff. After all, while President Obama has been proclaiming his support for the Bowles-Simpson plan, his vice president has been assuring the public that Social Security will not be touched in a second Obama administration.
Last month in Virginia, Joe Biden said in the strongest possible terms that there will be no cuts to Social Security in a second Obama administration. He repeated the statement with the additional line that, “I guarantee it.” This would seem to be a pretty clear contradiction of President Obama’s support for Bowles-Simpson.
The media should be trying to resolve this contradiction. Then voters could go to the polls knowing whether they are voting for someone who wants to follow Bowles-Simpson and cut Social Security benefits, or alternatively, would pick up the gauntlet thrown down by Vice President Biden and be a rock-solid defender of the program.