Biden Finds a Political Foil as He Warns of Social Security and Medicare Cuts

TAMPA, Fla. — President Biden traveled to Florida on Thursday afternoon with a political gift he had not been expecting before Tuesday night’s State of the Union speech.

The perfect foil.

Republican outbursts during his address to Congress — and Mr. Biden’s real-time exchange with heckling lawmakers about the fate of Social Security and Medicare — gave him exactly that, and he eagerly tried to use the episode to his advantage on Thursday in an event before a small audience of supporters here.

Standing in front of two huge American flags and a sign that said “Protect and strengthen Medicare,” the president made clear he relishes the fight on the issue.

“I guarantee it will not happen,” Mr. Biden said of cuts to the entitlement programs. “A lot of Republicans, their dream is to cut Social Security and Medicare. Well, let me say this: If that’s your dream, I’m your nightmare.”

To drive the point home, the White House placed glossy pamphlets on the seats of every attendee at the Tampa event, designed to look like the plan for a five-year expiration of all government programs put forward by Senator Rick Scott, Republican of Florida. 

“This means Medicare and Social Security would be on the chopping block every five years,” the White House wrote in the mocked-up pamphlet.

Not so, says Mr. Scott, who blasted the president after the State of the Union on Twitter, writing that the president “once again lies about Republicans trying to cut Social Security and Medicare” and posting a video calling on Mr. Biden to resign.

The truth is a bit more nuanced. Mr. Biden’s attack assumes that Mr. Scott’s plan would put the entitlement programs at risk every five years as he seeks to cut spending. Mr. Scott says his plan would not apply to those programs any more than it would to the military or other critical areas of the budget.

And he notes that in 1975, Mr. Biden, then a senator himself, sponsored legislation that would also have forced regular votes to renew spending. White House officials said the president has not supported that idea for nearly a half-century and ran for president arguing the opposite.

“A bill from the 1970s is not part of the president’s agenda,” said Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary.

Biden’s State of the Union Address

  • Challenging the G.O.P.: In the first State of the Union address of a new era of divided government, President Biden delivered a plea to Republicans for unity but vowed not to back off his economic agenda.
  • Blue-Collar Push: In his economically focused speech, Mr Biden signaled the opening of a campaign to persuade white working-class voters to return to the Democratic fold.
  • G.O.P. Heckling: The eruptions of Republican vitriol during Mr. Biden’s speech underscored a new and coarser normal for the G.O.P.-led House.
  • Romney-Santos Confrontation: The run-in between the Utah senator, an institutionalist who prizes decorum, and the embattled New York congressman encapsulated the tension inside the Republican Party.

Still, Mr. Biden’s aides say the spirited debate has played into his hands.

Mr. Biden, who is widely expected to announce a re-election bid soon, has seen his support lag in recent polls, even among Democrats, who overwhelmingly say they want someone else as their nominee in the 2024 presidential election.

But Republican and Democratic strategists said the Social Security and Medicare exchange at the State of the Union helped to crystallize, on national television in front of millions of Americans, the contrast with Republicans that Mr. Biden has been struggling to deliver.

The remarkable back-and-forth started when Mr. Biden accused some Republicans of threatening Social Security and Medicare — an assertion that they rejected, loudly.

“Liar!” screamed Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia.

When Republicans continued to deny that they planned to cut the social programs, the president said he was happy Republicans were committing to leaving them alone.

Aides said the president returned to the White House late Tuesday astonished that Republicans gave him a prime-time opportunity to look commanding on an issue that resonates deeply with many Democrats, Republicans and independents.

“That moment — if Republicans don’t do something to fix it — could present the perfect contrast that Biden would need going into 2024,” said Kevin Madden, who served as a senior adviser to Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, during Mr. Romney’s two presidential campaigns, in 2008 and 2012.

Mr. Biden had always planned to use his visit to the University of Tampa to warn about cuts to entitlements. But despite months of warning about “MAGA Republicans,” Mr. Biden had so far failed to make the threats seem real to voters.

Since he defeated President Donald J. Trump in 2020, Mr. Biden has had difficulty conjuring a useful political villain, in part because Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress. For much of his first year, Mr. Biden seemed to be fighting more with his own party — specifically, Senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia — than with Republicans.

During the 2022 midterm elections, many Democratic congressional candidates won by connecting their opponents to Mr. Trump and the “Big Lie” that the 2020 election had been stolen. A senior White House adviser, who asked for anonymity to discuss political strategy, said that since those elections ended, Mr. Biden has been hampered by having no well-defined opponent (and only Mr. Trump as a declared candidate for 2024).

Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to Mr. Biden and one of his top communications aides, said the scrimmage between the president and House Republicans on Tuesday night should provide Americans with a more visceral understanding of what the president has been talking about.

“Clearly, having the House Republican caucus behaving the way they are, and are signaling strongly they will continue to behave, is going to give the president an easy contrast,” she said. “What the House Republican caucus is doing for him is giving him a way to draw a contrast between what he is for — what he’s trying to get done, and who he’s trying to get it done for — with the House Republicans.”

Republicans accuse Mr. Biden of lying about their intentions. Many, including Speaker Kevin McCarthy, say they are not willing to consider any proposals to cut funding for Medicare and Social Security to pay for desired reductions in the nation’s debt and deficit. When Mr. Biden suggested the opposite Tuesday night, Republicans erupted in boos.

At times, Mr. McCarthy seemed to be trying to shush his members, a sign that he did not see their outbursts as helpful to their cause.

But Republicans so far have not said how they propose to reduce spending by a large enough amount to achieve their debt reduction goals. And there have been several notable Republicans who have proposed ideas like making all laws expire after five years unless lawmakers renew them — an idea that Mr. Biden says means Social Security and Medicare would go away automatically if such a vote failed.

The debate over entitlements is a complicated one, and Republicans have recently seized on the annually proposed rate adjustments for Medicare Advantage programs that are add-ons to traditional Medicare operated by private insurance companies.

The government says the adjustment is an increase of about 2 percent in payments to the plan providers. But the insurance industry says other proposed changes would actually mean a reduction of almost 3 percent — or about $3 billion — in payments from the government.

In other words, say Republicans, a cut. They are already using the proposal to deflect the president’s own accusations about the entitlement programs.

“It’s President Biden who is proposing to cut Medicare Advantage, a program used by almost four in 10 Arkansas seniors,” Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, said on Twitter this week. “This would be a mistake.”

The rate proposal, which must be finalized by April, comes on the heels of another announcement from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services that they would be cracking down on private insurance companies that are overcharging the government through the Medicare Advantage programs.

Administration officials call that move, which was begun years ago under Mr. Trump’s administration, a needed effort at financial accountability that could save taxpayers $4.7 billion over 10 years. Opponents of the audits are preparing to take legal action.

Mr. Madden said the White House is smart to maximize the impact of the exchange between Mr. Biden and the Republicans during what has traditionally been a decorous gathering of the nation’s leaders.

He said the television coverage of the exchange had focused on the most extreme voices in the Republican Party, like Ms. Greene, who have “a sort of a political appeal that’s toxic in many swing states and in the most important areas of swing states, like suburbs.”

But he cautioned that even the most astonishing moments from State of the Union speeches “tend to melt on contact,” evaporating quickly in the ever-changing news cycle.

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