Obama and Biden Need to Get Specific About Social Security and Medicare

Do vague statements on Social Security now set the stage for “grand compromises” in the future?

The first of three presidential debates is done. But the debate over the future of Social Security is far from settled.

Mitt Romney did his best in the first debate to distance himself from his running mate's privatization schemes. And President Obama let Romney get away with it, by saying: "I suspect that on Social Security, we've got a somewhat similar position." The Obama camp has since distanced itself from that line, which is good, since tens of millions of Americans would have a hard time voting for Obama if they thought he actually shared Romney's stance.

Hopefully, Vice President Biden will be blunter in calling out Paul Ryan in Thursday's vice presidential debate. The House Budget Committee, whose allegiance to Wall Street speculators threatens the retirement security of Americans over age 65 and, especially, of Americans who are headed toward retirement, has outlined a strategy for the eventual privatization of Social Security. Biden could simply quote the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, which says that for " the GOP Romney/Ryan Presidential ticket, Social Security is seen as little more than a budget target. They intend to use it to fund tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and allow Wall Street to access American workers' Social Security funds."

But this has do go deeper than debating points. Americans need real assurances.

Poll after poll confirms the popularity of Social Security, as well as the strong preference on the part of voters of all regions, parties and ideological trendencies that the program should be protected from cuts when politicians address debts and deficits.

Romney and Ryan can't be allowed to spin their way around this issue. Romney, with his selection of Ryan as his running-mate, identified the GOP ticket with proposals to shred the safety net. He'll have to renounce Ryan if he wants voters to imagine that Social Security would survive on his watch.

But Americans also need to hear more and better from President Obama.

Even before his bumbling debate performance, Obama sent conflicting signals about Social Security. That's troubling to Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who has emerged as perhaps the most determined defender of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Sanders supports Obama. He makes no bones about the fact that he thinks a Romney-Ryan administration would be a disaster for working Americans.

Yet, says Sanders, it is naive to think that beating Romney and Ryan will settle things. After last week's debate, the senator said of the president's mixed signals on Social Security: "It was very distressing. It was very distressing not only because it is extremely bad public policy and will cause serious damage to a whole lot of vulnerable Americans. It was also bad because he's going against what the vast majority of the American people want and it's going to be very bad for his re-election effort."

Sanders is concerned about the politics of the moment. He is also concerned about what happens after the election.

"I fear very much that there is a possibility that in a lame-duck session (after the election), President Obama and Democratic leaders will be pressured to make cuts in Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid in exchange for some modest revenue increases -- much of which will end up coming not from the wealthy but from the middle class," Sanders told The Nation. "That's not the way to go, but I'm convinced there are Democrats who are prepared to make that compromise."

Sanders and twenty-eight other senators have signed a letter declaring that they will "oppose including Social Security cuts for future or current beneficiaries in any deficit reduction package."

Sanders wants to hear Obama and Biden make that commitment, in coming debates-- and on the campaign trail. The senator's right to demand clarity from the president after Obama confused the issue with his unsettling and (hopefully) inaccurate line about sharing a "somewhat similar position" with Romney

Americans believe that no one who proposes to weaken Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid should be given the authority to do so.

Voters will make the right choices in November.

But they need specifics, not vague promises from Republicans or Democrats.

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