Earlier this month, Joe Biden flew to Wisconsin to address the mounting punditry that his election chances were spiraling downward over Donald Trump’s focus on “law and order” in Kenosha. That same day, his campaign put out a new advertisement that suggested they had a different conception about what issue would shape the presidential race.
The ad, released on Sept. 3, bludgeoned Trump directly on a historically reliable Democratic turf: Social Security. In it, the narrator said the president was plotting to leave the much-loved entitlement program “permanently depleted” in just a few years.
The spot was delivered to little fanfare and was overshadowed by Biden’s decision to meet with the family of Jacob Blake, a Black man shot and left critically wounded by a white police officer. But for some Democrats, it was a signal about where the party’s nominee placed his electoral and legislative priorities. And an overwhelmingly positive one at that.
“This isn’t like every other election where seniors who have happily retired in Florida have had the opportunity to sit back in comfort and assess the political campaigns,” Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) told The Daily Beast. “They know this president’s failures got us to this point and they’re paying close attention when he tells them that his goal in the second term is to bankrupt Social Security.”
“Seniors especially know what America can be,” Deutch added. “For those who have come to rely upon the hard earned benefit of Social Security, they’re just not going to let the president take that away from them.”
Heading into the general election, there was some fear that Biden might neglect this approach. During and after the 2016 cycle, a number of Democrats were critical of Hillary Clinton’s campaign for somewhat ceding the debate over “pocketbook” economic issues by engaging Trump on matters of decency, social policy, and respect for democratic governance. Biden, at times, has seemed like he might go down a similar path, often waxing with nostalgia for a time of civility and norms.
His campaign operation, however, has appeared to be cognisant of the pitfalls that ensnared Clinton. The ad released two weeks ago was the second of three targeting Social Security specifically, and was one of five about seniors more generally in recent months.
He’s been able to go down this route, in no small part, because Trump kicked open the door for him. Last month, when the president called for an elimination of the payroll tax and signed an executive order deferring collection, liberals quickly capitalized by saying Trump was directly threatening the Social Security fund—which the payroll tax feeds—that he had long said he’d protect. Though Trump publicly insisted that doing away with the tax would not tank retirement benefits or further balloon the deficit, independent analyses concluded that his calculations did not seem right.
“I don’t think anyone in the past has proposed cutting the payroll tax without making up the money,” said Paul Begala, one of Bill Clinton’s former senior campaign advisers. “That’s what Obama did in his recovery package. They cut the payroll tax but they funded Social Security from general revenue, the income tax.”
In Trumpworld, officials are projecting calm, and don’t concede that this is all exposing substantial vulnerabilities for the president, who has so far struggled to bring down Biden’s strong numbers with senior voters.
“Not seeing the kind of decline that some media polls are,” John McLaughlin, a top Trump pollster, told The Daily Beast. “They’re too small in their subcells so they’re seeing swings that may be due to party swings. Older Republicans are very strong for the president. Democrats are for Biden, no surprise. But the battle was among independents and regardless of age, over the past month the president has moved up.”
Three Trump campaign officials said they weren’t yet sweating Team Biden’s line of attack, primarily because they planned on hitting the former vice president’s public record for embracing cuts and slowdowns to entitlement programs as well. There is also a point of belief inside the Trump campaign that the president is uniquely positioned as a Republican on this matter due to his longstanding insistence that he would not cut them. While Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) and former Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) endorsed the idea of rolling back government programs, Trump has barely bothered to even pretend that deficit and debt reduction measures animate his existence.
On top of that, some fact-checkers have found that certain lines in Biden’s ads too loosely interpret what Trump has said and in some cases were misleading. In one instance, a Biden ad says, “if Trump gets his way, Social Security benefits will run out in just three years,” which PolitiFact argued goes “further than what Trump has described.” The site noted that Trump “has said two things that are at odds: he wants to protect Social Security, and he would do away with the payroll tax that keeps Social Security going,” making the claim too sweeping. In another case, the same ad used the word “plan,” which The Washington Post found to be too presumptive.
And yet, there are some signs of panic slightly below the surface. Courtney Parella, a spokesperson for Trump’s re-election campaign, accused Biden of “fearmongering to cover for decades of failing our nation’s seniors” in a statement. Trump has wailed away on Twitter that he won’t let Social Security be cut. And his campaign started airing an ad just this week in Arizona and other states going after Biden on the topic.
Democrats are more than happy to engage.
The Biden campaign views seniors as integral to win 270 electoral votes. To get there, they have courted the constituency for months through advertising and by hiring a full-time staffer to manage “seniors outreach” as well as hosting safe “Seniors for Biden” gatherings virtually. The team intends to expand those efforts, a campaign official told The Daily Beast.
“You can expect us to continue going on the offense and making our case not only to seniors but to all Floridians for [a] Biden-Harris ticket across our organizing, paid media, and broader engagement programs,” the official said.
Elaborating on their plans, the campaign views Florida, where Biden campaigned on Tuesday after his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), visited last week, as a top pickup chance, particularly for its sizable communities of older residents. In August, they debuted an ad, titled “Swing,” which showed Trump playing golf to a voiceover explaining how he signed an order in the White House that would end up “hitting seniors the hardest.”
“We see a huge opportunity among the senior population in Florida and have been working hard since day one to both educate our voters about how they can cast their early ballot, and engaging with and having meaningful conversations with those who have soured on the president in the last four years,” the campaign official added.
With a big potential delegate upshot among that voting population, some strategists believe the party should be doing more to not squander the moment. “It’s amazing to me that the Democrats don’t talk about it every day and I think it’s because Trump distracts us with the racism and the misogyny and Islamophobia and the rest of it,” said Begala. “But I do get frustrated.”
“We are letting him get away with cuts in Social Security that would have cost Ronald Reagan re-election, much less this knucklehead,” he said.
Priorities USA, a well-funded Democratic super PAC boosting Biden, distributed a memo in mid-August calling Trump’s payroll tax cut pledge “politically radioactive.”
“In February, we tested more than 100 different messages with battleground state voters to determine the most effective lines of attack on Trump. Out of dozens of options, calling out the massive cuts to Social Security and Medicare proposed in Trump’s 2021 budget … came back as the top-testing message, with respondents selecting it as a top concern 61 percent of the time—including 59 percent of the time among swing voters,” the memo read.
Steve Pierce, Priorities’ director of battleground state communications, said they have reason to believe their steady strikes are working. “Donald Trump has proposed massive cuts to Social Security in every single budget since he became president—and voters have taken notice,” Pierce said. “In poll after poll, we’ve seen voters place Trump’s attacks on this crucial program that millions of seniors rely on among the things that most concern them about his failed presidency.”
Other Democrats recall how Trump had declared five years ago that he was “the first & only potential GOP candidate to state there will be no cuts to Social Security, Medicare & Medicaid,” positioning himself, at the time, as an outlier among his Republican counterparts. Those words now present a contradiction after he has made opposing remarks a number of times in office.
The Center for American Progress, a prominent Democratic think tank, put together its own memo counting the instances where the president had flipped, citing “at least 14 times” where he vowed to gut the program. On Tuesday, the non-partisan group AARP released polling indicating that “50+ likely voters” surveyed in places like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan “trust” Biden more than Trump to “strengthen Social Security and protect Medicare”—a preference that also holds in North Carolina and Arizona.
“Famously, Dwight Eisenhower wrote a letter to his brother and said a party that calls for the elimination of Social Security would be a party not heard from ever again. That’s just true. It still is true,” said Kenneth Baer, a former Obama administration official who warned in a Daily Beast column in 2016 that Clinton was not focused enough on economic issues and would suffer for it at the polls.
“What Trump has called for, goes so far beyond anything that people in the past have called for. He has basically gutted the funding mechanism for it and it makes total sense for Biden to tell voters that—especially older voters who vote more often and reliably and lean towards Trump.”