NEW YORK -- While President Barack Obama was forced to do damage control after he said there was no daylight between him and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney on Social Security, Joe Biden offered a much more aggressive defense of the program in Thursday night's debate -- a development that cheered advocates of the program.
In response to a question from moderator Martha Raddatz about whether benefits would have to change because "both Medicare and Social Security are going broke and taking a larger share of the budget in the process," Biden made a promise.
"With regard to Social Security, we will not -- we will not privatize it," he said. "If we had listened to Romney, Governor Romney, and the congressman during the Bush years, imagine where all those seniors would be now if their money had been in the market."
Biden was referring to George W. Bush's politically disastrous attempt to create a Social Security voucher program in 2005. Ryan was an important Congressional supporter -- he even did Bush one better with a far more aggressive privatization proposal (that would have created $2 trillion in transition costs alone). Romney, in 2007, voiced support for Bush's proposal.
Although he usually denies that his voucher plan amounts to "privatization," on Thursday night Ryan did not object when Raddatz used the word. "What I've always agreed is let younger Americans have a voluntary choice of making their money work faster for them within the Social Security system," he said.
As Biden pointed out, private accounts would not have looked so attractive after the market crash of 2008. But last week the president failed to make that point, instead saying of himself and Romney, "I suspect that on Social Security, we've got a somewhat similar position."
Progressive economist Dean Baker called that Obama's "biggest failure" in the debate. The campaign was forced to do clean-up to reassure supporters that yes, there are differences between the president and Romney on Social Security -- Obama is opposed to vouchers, for instance. Nevertheless, the president's answer concerned progressives who worry he is open to reducing cost-of-living increases or raising the retirement age.
Biden avoided any policy specifics on cost of living or retirement age on Thursday. But he did offer a guiding principle for the administration: "The idea of changing, and change being in this case to cut the benefits for people without taking other action you could do to make it work, is absolutely the wrong way."
For Eric Kingson, co-director of the Strengthen Social Security Campaign, Biden's statements were an improvement -- although overall his reaction to the debate was still "mixed."
"I think the vice president properly made a spirited statement about how he supports the program," Kingson said. "Obviously, in terms of Social Security, [Obama-Biden], not the Romney-Ryan ticket, is far better. Essentially Romney would act to destroy the basic Social Security system with privatization."
However, Kingson said, "The rhetoric is good, but a White House that is opposed to privatizing Social Security is not enough."
Even after last week's presidential debate, Kingson said, "the White House was not willing to say that they will not cut benefits. And in fact that's unfortunate that they're not willing to draw that bright line in the sand that says, 'We're going to maintain this system.'"
For Baker too, that was the "big disappointment" of the night.
Kingson said he is worried about Obama's openness to making "tweaks" to the program during negotiations to find a "grand bargain" over entitlements and the deficit after the election.
That concern is the reason Kingson said he found Raddatz's question -- which presupposed that there might need to be benefits "changes" to fix the "broke" Social Security system -- "outrageous."
"That framing ... I would love to see a candidate say this is outrageous," Kingson said. "This is part of the Washington journalist approach to Social Security: everyone knows it's in crisis, everyone knows it's going bankrupt. Baloney -- that's not a statement based in reality."
With changes like lifting the cap on how much income individuals have to pay in Social Security payroll taxes, Kingson believes the program could be extended well beyond its current 2033 insolvency debate. What moderators should be concerning themselves with, he argued, are the millions of Americans who will be retiring in the near future with underwater mortgages and depleted 401(k)s, who could use if anything stronger Social Security benefits.
"The worst part of the debate was her question, from the point of view of Social Security," he said. "I think she should have stuck to foreign policy."