WASHINGTON -- In his jobs speech before Congress Thursday night, President Barack Obama appeared to call on congressional Democrats to cut Medicare, a politically toxic proposal that undercuts a previous Democratic campaign strategy.
Obama pushed to cut Medicare during the debate over raising the federal debt ceiling, urging lawmakers from both parties to accept a "grand bargain" that involved cutting both Social Security and Medicare. Obama's move upset congressional Democrats, who saw a proposal from Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to radically cut Medicare as an attack ad opening going into the Nov. 2012 elections. House Republicans voted for the Ryan proposal en masse, just months after hordes of GOP freshmen were swept into office amid advertisements vowing to protect the hugely popular entitlement program.
Democrats won an unexpected special election in New York earlier this year by attacking the Republican candidate, Jane Corwin, as an enemy of Medicare, based on her views on the Ryan budget plan.
"Now, I realize there are some in my party who don’t think we should make any changes at all to Medicare and Medicaid, and I understand their concerns," Obama said during his speech Thursday. "But here’s the truth. Millions of Americans rely on Medicare in their retirement. And millions more will do so in the future. They pay for this benefit during their working years. They earn it. But with an aging population and rising health care costs, we are spending too fast to sustain the program. And if we don’t gradually reform the system while protecting current beneficiaries, it won’t be there when future retirees need it. We have to reform Medicare to strengthen it. "
Medicare faces long-term problems due to the rising costs of health care, a uniquely American problem sparked by protections the U.S. government provides for health insurance companies and drug manufacturers. Obama's health care reform bill attempted to lower those costs, but his call now to "reform" Medicare is sure to be interpreted as a call to raise the eligibility age for Medicare, something Obama urged during the debt ceiling debate to no avail.
As Ezra Klein reported for the Washington Post on Wednesday, Obama is planning a separate deficit reduction package that liberal groups expect to include raising the eligibility age. Making this change for both Medicare and Social Security hits poorer participants in the programs hardest, since they are more likely to die at a younger age.
UPDATE: The Progressive Change Campaign Committee released a statement criticizing Obama's Medicare comments and deriding several of Obama's jobs proposals as ineffective.
"Tonight, President Obama proposed corporate tax cuts paid for with cuts to Medicare benefits. Forcing Americans to choose between jobs and Medicare is unthinkable, especially for a Democratic president," the statement reads. "America needs a massive government investment in jobs – not Medicare benefit cuts, not corporate tax giveaways, and not telling the unemployed to work for big corporations for free."