TAMPA, Florida (AP) — With an eye toward the 2024 campaign, President Joe Biden took direct aim at Republicans who have floated cuts to Social Security and Medicare — telling an audience in Florida on Thursday that he would create a “nightmare” for anyone who dreamed of trying them.
Venturing into a state defined by its growing retiree population and status as the unofficial headquarters of the modern-day Republican Party, the president sees a chance to use Social Security and Medicare to drive a wedge between GOP lawmakers and their base of older voters who rely on these government programs for income and health insurance.
Biden is trying to lay the groundwork for an expected reelection campaign announcement this spring. Florida is also home to some of his potential biggest Republican rivals during next year's race.
White House aides have been using the votes and words of Republican lawmakers to make their case that Social Security and Medicare benefits are under threat, while GOP leaders say their statements are being mischaracterized.
Even as Biden said his focus is on getting things done, his speech in Tampa — and remarks the day before in Wisconsin — showed how he's trying to rally the public to his side now that Republicans control the House. In a politically divided country, the ability to get support from older voters who rely on the programs could decide which party holds the White House as well as Congress in the 2024 elections.
At the lectern Thursday, Biden held up a pamphlet about Florida Sen. Rick Scott in which the Republican said he wants to require that the programs be reauthorized every five years.
“I know that a lot of Republicans — their dream is to cut Social Security and Medicare,” Biden said. “If that's your dream, I'm your nightmare.”
Leading Republican lawmakers insist that spending cuts to Social Security and Medicare are off the table with regard to reaching a deal to increase the government's legal borrowing authority. But enough prominent Republicans have broached the subject that Biden told his audience Thursday that, “I'll believe it when I see it.”
“I will not cut a single Social Security or Medicare benefit,” the president continued. “In fact, I'm going to extend the Medicare trust fund for at least two decades.”
Top Republicans, recognizing the political liabilities posed by Scott's plan, continued to distance the party from the proposal as Biden repeatedly used it as a cudgel on Thursday.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told Louisville’s 840 WHAS on Thursday that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said Social Security and Medicare “are not to be touched and I’ve said the same. And I think we’re in a more authoritative position to state what the position of the party is than any single senator.”
In the interview, McConnell — whose feud with Scott is well-known in Washington — took it one step further. Calling Scott's plan a “bad idea,” the minority leader pointedly said, “I think it will be a challenge for him to deal with this in his own reelection in Florida, a state with more elderly people than any other state in America.”
During Tuesday's State of the Union address, GOP lawmakers jeered when Biden referred to Scott's proposal. The president seized on the impromptu moment, urging Republicans and Democrats alike to pledge to avoid cuts to the income and health insurance programs.
“Let’s stand up for seniors,” Biden said as most of those in the chamber took to their feet to applaud, knowing the dangers of being on the wrong side of an aging electorate that values these programs.
To drive home their argument, White House aides distributed handouts in Tampa before the speech summarizing Scott's plan, highlighting the phrase where the senator wrote: “All federal legislation sunsets in 5 years. If a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again.”
Scott said his policy ideas have been misrepresented by the president and he only wants programs up for congressional renewal every five years, which he believes is different from spending cuts to Social Security or Medicare. “They lie about it," Scott said in a written statement about how administration officials have described his plan.
“I am not for cutting Social Security and Medicare,” Scott said in a CNN interview hours before Biden's trip. "We’ve got to preserve those benefits.”
It’s a delicate moment for Social Security and Medicare, programs that economists say will drive the national debt to unprecedented highs over the next few decades. The Social Security trust fund will be unable to pay full benefits starting in 2035, prompting some Republican lawmakers to say changes will have to be made to sustain payments.
But any proposed changes can come across as kryptonite to voters, who want their benefits preserved rather than cut. That's especially true in Republican-held Florida, where census figures show that nearly a third of adults are older than 62.
Despite its longtime reputation as the nation’s premier swing state, Florida trended toward the GOP in recent years before lurching sharply to the right last fall. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis won reelection by a staggering 19 percentage points in November, even carrying the longtime Democratic stronghold of Miami-Dade County.
By this summer, Florida may be the staging ground for at least two top-tier presidential campaigns. Former President Donald Trump launched his 2024 bid nearly three months ago from his Palm Beach estate, and DeSantis is likely to join him in the coming months. Scott, believed to be the wealthiest member of the Senate, also has presidential aspirations.
Republicans have flocked to the state in recent years as well, describing it as “the free state of Florida” in a nod to DeSantis’ fierce resistance to pandemic-related mandates and “woke” policies on race and gender.
At a news conference Wednesday, DeSantis talked up Florida’s economy and leaned into cultural divisions while flanked by a row of gas stoves. Federal officials recently raised health concerns about the popular appliances.
“They are trying to take away your gas stove,” DeSantis said. “It shows they are coming for any little thing in your life.”
Multiple administration officials have said they are not banning gas stoves, with White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre saying last month, “The president does not support banning gas stoves."
Boak reported from Washington and Peoples from New York. Associated Press writer Fatima Hussein contributed to this report.