Separate appearances Friday by President Obama and Rep. Paul Ryan before an AARP meeting in New Orleans proved that the third rail of American politics, Medicare and Social Security collectively, is still very much electrified.
Speaking to a supremely friendly audience via live video feed from Virginia, where he was campaigning, Obama drew repeated applause and cheers with promises to defend Medicare and Social Security from Republican proposals that he said threaten the entitlement programs' ability to deliver the kind of benefits seniors have become accustomed to.
Ryan appeared in person a short while later before the same AARP group. But given the audience's negative reaction to much of his speech, the Republican vice presidential nominee could be forgiven if he at times wished he, too, could have delivered his remarks by remote video feed.
The audience response to Ryan was at best mixed, with boos and jeers as well as some cheers, when he talked about his proposal to change Medicare and criticized the president's approach.
Showing again that he intends to cut GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney no slack for his controversial private-fundraiser remarks about the "47 percent" — comments revealed by a secretly recorded video in which Romney said nearly half of the electorate depended on government handout — Obama said:
"But given the conversations that have been out there in — in the political arena lately, I want to emphasize, Medicare and Social Security are not handouts. [Applause.] You've paid into these programs your whole lives. You've earned them. And as president, it's my job to make sure that Medicare and Social Security remain strong for today's seniors for future generations."
It was one of numerous lines that drew generous applause.
The president also used his AARP appearance as his latest opportunity to rebut Republican charges that he raided Medicare of $716 billion to fund the Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare," the word the president used. ("I don't mind the term because I do care. That's why we passed the bill," Obama said to more cheers and applause.)
As fact checkers have repeatedly explained, the $716 billion represents reductions in payments to insurers and health providers. Obama said:
"I have strengthened Medicare as president. [Applause.] We've added years to the life of the program by getting rid of taxpayer subsidies to insurance companies that weren't making people healthier.
"And we used those savings to lower prescription drug costs and to offer seniors on Medicare new preventive services like cancer screenings and wellness services. In fact, the health reform law we passed has already saved more than 5.5 million seniors and people with disabilities nearly $4.5 billion on their prescription drugs. [Applause.] Seniors who received a discount have saved an average of more than $600 this year alone. And over the next 10 years, we expect the average Medicare beneficiary to save nearly $5,000 as a result of this law."
In a pre-emptive strike against Ryan, the president reminded the audience (as though it needed any reminder) that the Wisconsin congressman and House Budget Committee chairman had proposed changing Medicare for future beneficiaries so they would get what critics call a voucher, a fixed amount with which they would then have to purchase health insurance from private companies.
For good measure, Obama warned the audience that Romney's proposed $5 trillion in tax cuts weighted toward the wealthy could leave seniors paying higher taxes on their Social Security.
OBAMA: "Independent experts say there is no way to do that with all — without also cutting deductions that the middle class relies on. And that includes taxing things like Social Security benefits. And this could mean higher taxes for seniors on Social Security, including taxing benefits for seniors who make less than $32,000 a year for the first time ever. Nearly 30 million seniors could see their taxes go up by hundreds of dollars. So I want you all to know at AARP, I'm not going to let that happen."
That prompted another round of cheers and applause from the crowd. It was a tough act for Ryan to follow.
Ryan was greeted with polite applause when he walked onstage. But that didn't last long. Not long after he began to speak, he mentioned Obamacare, and obviously not with the president's affection for the law.
RYAN: "Today, our nation faces a political turning point. Government mismanagement and political cowardice are threatening both sides of LBJ's pledge. Seniors are threatened by Obamacare, a law that would force steep cuts to real benefits in real time for real people." [Shouts, boos.]
"Meanwhile — [boos] — meanwhile, younger Americans are burdened by an ever-growing national debt and a diminished future.
"Here's the good news. By embracing common-sense reforms now, we can get ahead of the problem and keep promises people have organized their lives around. You see, if we reform Medicare for my generation, we can protect it for those in or near retirement today." [Applause.]
"The first step to a stronger Medicare is to repeal Obamacare, because it represents the worst of both worlds. [Boos.]
"I had a feeling there would be mixed reactions, so let me get into it. [Boos.] It weakens Medicare for today's seniors and puts it at risk for the next generation. [Boos.] First, it funnels $716 billion out of Medicare to pay for a new entitlement we didn't even ask for. [Boos.] Second, it puts 15 unelected bureaucrats in charge of Medicare's future."
And so it went for Ryan. When boos weren't accompanied by a smattering of cheers, there was silence.
Both the president and Ryan fielded a few questions from the audience. Obama was asked if he supported raising the income cap on Social Security taxes, which now stands at $106,000, which means that those who make $1 million annually pay taxes into the program on around 10 percent of their income versus most Americans, who pay on 100 percent of theirs.
OBAMA: "You know, I do think that looking at changing the cap is an important aspect of putting Social Security on a more stable footing. [Applause.] And what I've said is — is that I'm willing to work with Republicans and examine all their ideas, but what I'm not going to do, as a matter of principle, is to slash benefits or privatize Social Security and suddenly turn it over to Wall Street — [applause] — because we saw what can happen back in 2008, 2009, when — when the stock market crashed. And we're still recovering from that."
Ryan was asked if he would cut benefits or increase taxes to put Social Security on a sounder footing.
RYAN: "So Mitt and I put a specific plan out here on this. We think that a tax increase on payroll taxes is bad for economics, it's bad for growth, and it especially hurts self-employed people. You have to remember a self-employed person, like a farmer or somebody working their own business, they pay both sides of the payroll tax, and we think that that hurts job creation, plus it doesn't get you the kind of revenues you need to fix the problem. But if you put small changes now that don't kick in till people who are 54 and below retire, you can actually make these modest changes that make the program solvent for 75 years.
"And so what we're saying is gradually raise that retirement age to reflect longevity in the future — wouldn't even start till 2025, I believe — and don't give wealthier people as much of an increase in their benefits as everyone else does, and bring that bottom benefit up to at least the poverty line."