After being criticized for emphasizing points of agreement on Social Security during Wednesday night’s debate, President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign delivered an email to supporters clarifying their response, which left a number of key details unanswered and retained a degree of flexibility for the President over his choices for the program.
Deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter sent the email Friday night under the campaign’s “Truth Team” aegis, attempting to clear up the Social Security portion of the debate. The President said then that he believed he and Mitt Romney share a “somewhat similar position” on the topic. Cutter expanded on these remarks, pointing out areas of agreement and disagreement:
President Obama and Romney agree that we need to make gradual changes to make sure Social Security stays solvent over the long term. The disagreement is over how to do it — and that’s where President Obama and Romney have fundamentally different ideas.
President Obama will under no circumstances agree to put your retirement at risk by privatizing Social Security, and he will reject any plan that slashes Social Security benefits. Because Romney opposes any effort to raise a single penny in new revenue, his Social Security plan is forced to rely solely on big benefit cuts to maintain solvency — analysis of a similar plan showed current workers would see cuts of up to 40 percent that would badly hurt their financial security.
Romney and Ryan also supported the Bush privatization plan that would have had exposed Social Security benefits to the financial crisis that devastated many pension funds and retirement accounts.
Cutter also sent readers to a page at BarackObama.com for more clarification. That site refers to a Bloomberg piece from Peter Diamond and Peter Orszag, which analyzes Mitt Romney’s Social Security plans. Those plans have been remarkably consistent over the course of the campaign – he wants to slowly raise the retirement age, and engage in “progressive price indexing,” where higher income earners see their benefit rates grow more slowly than those at the lower end of the scale. As Diamond and Orszag show, you would have to set the bar of “higher income earners” at the top 60% of earners in the country in order to derive any meaningful revenue from progressive price indexing. And raising the retirement age would impact all workers, regardless of income. Here’s how that all plays out.
These two steps would eliminate the long-term deficit in Social Security, according to the official analysis of the plan done by the Office of the Chief Actuary at Social Security. But they would do so by substantially reducing benefits, even for middle earners. According to the analysis, a medium earner (someone bringing in about $45,000 a year today) retiring in 2050 at age 65 would receive 32 percent less in annual benefits than under the current formula. By 2080, the reduction would amount to almost 40 percent.
A high earner (someone with income of about $70,000 currently) retiring in 2050 would get 40 percent less and, by 2080, almost 50 percent.
But Diamond and Orszag, in substitution, offer their plan which they claim would have that same middle-income earner receive 10% less in benefits over their lifespan. “The Romney-type approach would reduce [benefits] by about $7,500 a year. Under our plan, it would be only about $2,500 lower,” Diamond and Orszag write.
At the Truth Team page, you see Obama’s principles on Social Security reform laid out. And it matches what Obama has been saying on this matter for a while, full of vague statements and undefined concepts:
• Any reform should strengthen Social Security for future generations and restore long-term solvency.
• The administration will oppose any measures that privatize or weaken the Social Security system.
• While all measures to strengthen solvency should be on the table, the administration will not accept an approach that slashes benefits for future generations.
• No current beneficiaries should see their basic benefits reduced.
• Reforms should strengthen retirement security for the most vulnerable, including low-income seniors.
• Reform should maintain robust disability and survivors’ benefits.
The only hard line here is on privatization. I don’t know what “slashes” benefits means relative to simply reducing them. I don’t know what “basic” benefits means relative to the benefits people receive. And while later, Romney gets criticized for “proposing to close Social Security shortfalls through benefit cuts alone,” there’s no indication of any revenue increases Obama would support.
In other words, this set of principles was constructed to give Obama maximum wiggle room on Social Security, so that all people can read into it whatever they want. You can see someone who supports no benefit cuts, or modest benefit cuts, or revenue increases through changing the payroll tax cap, or no increases. President Obama won’t privatize Social Security. As for what else he would do, it’s not clear.
There’s no definitive rejection of raising the retirement age, for example. He doesn’t dismiss progressive price indexing out of hand. There’s no description of changing the cost of living adjustment calculation by moving to chained CPI, which is a net benefit cut. You just have an offhand reference to a column criticizing Romney’s Social Security approach, written by two guys whose plan for Social Security includes straight benefit reductions and an increase in the payroll tax rate without changing the payroll tax cap.
I think this “clarification” creates more questions than resolutions.