WASHINGTON -- Of all the moments that left Democrats scratching their collective head following President Barack Obama's debate performance Wednesday night, his comment on Social Security appeared to sting the most.
It was not that the president said anything particularly alarming about how he intends to address the program: His broader points were consistent with past statements. It was that, when presented with the opportunity to contrast his vision with that of his opponent, Obama took a pass, going so far as to say he didn't think it was an issue of disagreement.
"I suspect that on Social Security, we've got a somewhat similar position," Obama said. "Social Security is structurally sound. It's going to have to be tweaked the way it was by Ronald Reagan and Speaker -- Democratic Speaker Tip O'Neill. But it is -- the basic structure is sound."
In actuality, Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney have differences in their approaches to Social Security reform that Democratic-minded advocates argue are hugely important on both substantive and political levels. One top Democrat, speaking on condition of anonymity so as not to criticize the president so soon after the debate, said it was a "puzzling line" to offer at a hugely watched event. Nancy Altman, a longtime progressive advocate for Social Security, called it a "fat pitch" that was missed.
"There is a real difference in philosophy," she said. "For Obama to say that he believes he and Romney agree, either Obama has not been straight about his position on Social Security all these years, or he and his campaign haven't looked at Romney's position."
Indeed, Romney, in his book "No Apology," said he backs changing the payment structure for Social Security benefits and said that there is a "certain logic" to increasing the retirement age at which one begins to receive Social Security payments, while protecting those who may be physically unable to work.
"Many older Americans are healthy, vital, and want to stay engaged in meaningful work," he wrote. "If we increased the retirement age, we would encourage seniors to stay healthier longer, keep their minds active and alert, and at the same time, we would relieve the terrible Social Security burden our children and grandchildren face."
During the Republican primary debates, Romney criticized Texas Gov. Rick Perry for calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme that needed to be sent back to the states. But Romney also called the budget produced by his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), "marvelous." That budget calls for shifting the Social Security fund to private retirement accounts. Romney's campaign has threaded that needle by saying that he supports voluntary individual retirement accounts.
Obama supports none of these reforms, at least not publicly. The president did offer to change the benefit payment structure of Social Security during the debt ceiling negotiations with Speaker John Boehner. Since then, the campaign has been vague about his priorities, going so far as to argue that any reform talk should be pushed off until after the elections. However, the president, at a recent AARP forum, pushed the same line he did during the 2008 campaign when he expressed an openness to raising payroll taxes on high-end earners as a means of extending the program's solvency.
So why suggest that there isn't much difference between their plans? The Huffington Post posed that question to top Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod during a conference call with reporters on Thursday morning.
"I'm not sure what Governor Romney's position is," Axelrod responded. "I know what his running mate's position was, which is that we should privatize the Social Security system, which is something that, I presume, the governor has an interest in because he called his running mate the intellectual leader of the Republican Party. And it matches up with the plans to turn Medicare into a voucher system. The president wouldn't support that at all."
"As I said," Axelrod added later, "I don't know exactly. As in so many other places, the Romney position is not entirely clear [on Social Security]."
Romney hasn't talked much, if at all, about Social Security on the campaign trail, save that early dust-up with Perry in the primary. But for the president's defenders, that didn't excuse the president from suggesting the two of them shared an approach, or Axelrod from not knowing what Romney's past position was.
"Oh my God," said Eric Kingson, co-chair of the Strengthen Social Security campaign. "That is really very sad. Mitt Romney has written about it in one of his books ... It also speaks to a lack of appreciation for the importance of this institution to our country ... It really is remarkable that a Democratic president at this point in time would not draw a very dramatic line. They probably have to say, 'I made a mistake, I misspoke.'"