Later this week, President Obama will address a national AARP meeting. Until recently, the Obama re-election team seemed to have written off older voters. "We won without them in 2008 and we'll win without them again in 2012," was their apparent approach to this key segment of the electorate.
The selection of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney's VP triggered a reassessment of this strategy. Medicare, which Republicans used in the Congressional elections of 2010 to win voters aged 65 and over by a staggering 21-point margin, became a potential winning issue for Democrats. The Obama re-election team even formed "Seniors for Obama."
And now, Romney's "47 percent" video castigating those who receive government benefits and pay no federal income taxes, which includes millions of retirees, has to make older Americans question how he really views them.
Obama's ongoing problem with older voters dates back to the 2008 race for the nomination. I was helping Hillary Clinton with older voters. In every primary, including those which Obama won by huge margins, Clinton captured the senior vote. While much of this was due to the high regard that older voters had for the Bill Clinton administration and older women's enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton herself, seniors also expressed high anxiety over Obama's theme of change. After Clinton terminated her campaign, I joined the Obama team's retirement policy committee and sensed a lack of ardor toward older voters. During the convention, I drafted a few lines for the nominee to deliver in his acceptance speech: "I have a special message for older Americans. While my campaign theme was 'Change You Can Believe In,' I want to assure you that there is one change I do not believe in. I will not support any change to the fundamental structure of Social Security and Medicare." I waited in vain to hear those words in Denver that night.
In the 2008 election, Obama lost only one age group. Voters 65 and older supported John McCain by eight percentage points. Older voters, whose turnout rate was 68 percent, comprised 16.6 percent of the voting population that year, a decrease of three percentage points from 2004. Their impact was softened by higher numbers of younger voters, even though turnout rates among such voters were lower. (For example, only 52 percent of voters aged 18-24 actually voted in 2008.)
In the most recent New York Times/CBS News poll (conducted September 8 through 12), although 50 percent of respondents believed that President Obama would "do a better job handling Medicare" than Mitt Romney, who garnered 43 percent, individuals aged 65 and older preferred Romney to Obama by a whopping 15-point margin (53 percent to 38 percent).
So, despite the president's Medicare advantage, he is running the risk of losing older voters by almost twice as much as in 2008. If younger voters do not turn out in proportionately higher numbers than in 2008, losing older voters by such a margin might make the difference in critical swing states with high proportions of older voters -- like Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, and Ohio.
The AARP meeting will give President Obama a unique chance to galvanize the gray vote in his favor, or at least reduce the margin of loss. How can he do this? His best bet is to shift the focus of his campaign to Social Security as the top issue for older voters.
My message to the president: Opposing privatization is necessary, but not sufficient. You also need to make one overarching commitment on this issue. You will not support any cuts in Social Security benefits to current beneficiaries or future generations of retirees. (The official administration position has been opposition to "slashing" benefits, a word used so consistently and carefully by his team that it makes older people and their advocates suspicious that anything less than a "slash" would be fine.) This means: no modifications of the benefit formula, such as shifting to price-indexing over wage-indexing; no alterations of the Consumer Price Index, which determines annual cost-of-living adjustments; no introduction of means-testing, which would dilute the value of Social Security to higher-income retirees; and no increase in the normal retirement age. The latter does concern today's retirees, who (contrary to "greedy geezer" charges leveled at them by the likes of former Senator Alan Simpson) do not want reductions in Social Security for their children or grandchildren. And speaking of Simpson, you need to distance yourself from the attempt by him and Erskine Bowles to make Social Security part of their (and your) Commission's debt-reduction agenda.
In addition to these substantive commitments, you need to be very careful how you talk about Social Security. As you noted famously in your 2008 campaign for the nomination, "Don't tell me that words don't matter." When it comes to Social Security, don't refer to it as an "entitlement;" it is an "earned right." Social Security is not "going bankrupt;" it is facing a "manageable shortfall." And it is not a "safety net" to catch people when they risk falling into poverty; it is a "foundation" upon which people of all incomes build throughout their working years with pensions, savings, and insurance.
Oh, and one more piece of advice, Mr. President. Your campaign announced that you will participate in the AARP meeting by teleconference. Don't phone this one in. Participate in person. If you absolutely cannot, then follow Romney's example. He's sending Ryan to speak on his behalf. Send in Joe Biden. After all, campaigning in Virginia last month, he voiced the strongest Social Security commitment yet on behalf of the Obama administration, saying: ""I guarantee you, flat guarantee you, there will be no changes in Social Security." And he is also an AARP member.