early and often

Biden’s Shout-outs to Seniors Were a Shot at the GOP

Joe Biden with his generation. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

As anyone who watched Joe Biden’s 2023 State of the Union Address knows, the emotional centerpiece of the event was his (appropriate) accusation that there are some Republicans itching to get their hands on the Social Security and Medicare entitlements. His taunts stimulated the most raucous period of heckling from House Republicans and eventually produced a standing ovation for the notion of protecting these programs, as the president sardonically observed:

Folks — so folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books now, right? They’re not to be — all right. We’ve got unanimity …

So tonight, let’s all agree — and we apparently are — let’s stand up for seniors. Stand up and show them we will not cut Social Security. We will not cut Medicare.

Since forcing Democrats to provide cover for very unpopular domestic spending cuts — including or excluding Social Security and Medicare — is at the very heart of the GOP extortion strategy for holding a debt-limit measure hostage, this exchange was absolutely money for Biden. But it’s important to understand the broader strategy he is pursuing. Seniors are a precious prize in contemporary electoral politics, and one that has eluded Democrats in recent years (according to exit polls, Democrats lost over-65 voters by 8 percent in 2016; by 5 percent in 2020; and by 12 percent in 2022). Even in the very successful 2018 midterms, Democrats lost seniors by a couple of points. It mattered a lot since seniors tend to turn out at the highest levels of any age cohort. They have represented over a quarter of the electorate in every recent national election.

Their numbers, moreover, are growing now that the last of the baby boomers are at or near retirement age, as the Washington Post’s Philip Bump observes:

Over the course of the speech, Biden mentioned seniors (or the elderly) nine times, the most the group has been mentioned in any State of the Union in the past 40 years. He also mentioned Medicare and Social Security more frequently than past presidents, though that was in part due to his back-and-forth with the attending Republicans. …

In 1990, there were about 31 million people age 65 and over, a group that made up about 13 percent of the population. Ten years later, that group was about 35 million people and nearly the same percentage of the population.

Now, there are more than 54 million people age 65 and older, 16 percent of the population. And the Census Bureau expects those figures to surge over the coming decades.

Seniors are not at all monolithic in their political preferences over time; when today’s millennials reach retirement age they will almost definitely be more liberal and Democratic-leaning than today’s boomers. But the exceptional focus of senior voters on federal retirement benefits they consider an earned entitlement hasn’t changed much between generations, and it’s a potential asset for Democrats whenever Republicans (as they tend to do) drop hints or even make proposals for “entitlement reform.” Just as Democrats are not exceptionally well trusted overall for their ability to keep America’s defenses strong, Republicans are perpetually suspected of bad intent toward the retirement programs that comprise a large part of the nondefense budget, and that represent the progressive legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society. Democrats can and do exploit that reputation whenever they can.

Biden has an added incentive for conducting shout-outs to seniors: his advanced age, which is a handicap for him among some younger voters, is an asset with many seniors. He knows what it’s like to lose a step, to forget a name, to worry about health and security, and to react irritably to lawn-trashers like Marjorie Taylor Greene. So he’s not going to let any whipper-snappers mess with Social Security and Medicare.

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Biden’s Shout-outs to Seniors Were a Shot at the GOP