On the same trip to southern Virginia, Mr. Biden wandered into the Coffee Break Cafe in Stuart. According to the White House pool report, when a diner there said, “I’m glad you all are not talking about doing anything with Social Security,” Mr. Biden responded: “Hey, by the way, let’s talk about Social Security. Number one, I guarantee you, flat guarantee you, there will be no changes in Social Security. I flat guarantee you.”
Why is this so depressing? Because, as Mr. Biden knows, Social Security is going broke. If “no changes” are made, then by 2033 the program will not be able to pay benefits as promised.
Is “going broke” too strong? Well, let’s ask the experts — the trustees of the Social Security Trust Fund, who include President Obama’s Treasury, labor, and health and human services secretaries. In their annual report in April — delivered, as it happens, to Mr. Biden, in his capacity as Senate president — the trustees noted that the disability portion of the trust fund “becomes exhausted in 2016, so legislative action is needed as soon as possible.” The overall fund, combining retirement and disability, will “become exhausted and unable to pay scheduled benefits in full on a timely basis in 2033.” That leaves Congress with four choices, the trustees explained: raise the payroll tax, reduce benefits, devote other revenue to Social Security or some combination of the above.
“The Trustees recommend that lawmakers address the projected trust fund shortfalls in a timely way in order to phase in necessary changes and give workers and beneficiaries time to adjust to them,” the April report concluded. “With informed discussion, creative thinking, and timely legislative action, Social Security can continue to protect future generations.”
Now, here’s the really depressing part: Everyone agrees that fixing Social Security is the easy one — far easier than reining in Medicare, Medicaid and other health-care costs. Tweak the inflation calculator and moderately raise the income limit for applying the payroll tax, and you can shore up Social Security with no harm to the safety net.
In response to our inquiry, White House officials said that Mr. Biden’s “flat guarantee” was not meant to convey a change in administration position, which they said is best understood from Mr. Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address, which called for “a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations.”
That speech was hardly a profile in courage: Mr. Obama opposed “slashing” benefits for future retirees. But that presumably (if tacitly) left room for trimming benefits. The president went further in failed negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner last summer, putting on the table changes in the way Social Security cost-of-living adjustments are calculated.
By contrast, the vice president’s hearty assurances, like so much in this campaign, will make even more difficult the governing decisions that become more expensive and more painful with every year of delay.