President Donald Trump said he’s considering making changes to social safety net programs like Social Security and Medicare “toward the end of the year” ― suggesting he is open to the cuts long pushed by conservatives.
Trump’s comments to CNBC on Wednesday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, are a change from his past promises to Americans that he would leave those programs untouched, although his administration has pushed to downsize them. Given the enormous popularity of the programs, even hinting at entitlement cuts is typically the third rail of politics, particularly in an election year. Democrats have warned that Trump might do more to decrease the social safety net, and he just confirmed they’re right.
“At the right time, we will take a look at that,” Trump said after CNBC asked if entitlements would ever be “on your plate.” He added it would be the “easiest of all the things.”
Trump appeared to crush Republicans’ dreams of entitlement cuts during his presidential campaign.
“I’m not going to cut Social Security like every other Republican and I’m not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid,” Trump told The Daily Signal, a conservative news site affiliated with the Heritage Foundation, in 2015.
Entitlement “reform” has long been conservatives’ white whale. They argue that reducing these three huge federal spending programs ― Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security ― is the only way to effectively wrangle the nation’s ballooning deficit. Notably, Republicans reignited talks about entitlement changes after passing a $1 trillion tax cut in 2017, which largely benefited corporations and the very wealthy.
While deficits have climbed steadily on his watch, Trump himself has largely kept to his talking point against cutting those safety net programs. His administration, however, has repeatedly advocated the opposite. Trump’s 2020 budget proposal recommended spending $1.5 trillion less on Medicaid (instead allocating $1.2 trillion in block grants to states), $25 billion less on Social Security, and $575 billion less on Medicare, after reclassifying funds into a different department.
Those proposals would cut Medicaid and Social Security benefits, add stringent work requirements for Medicaid recipients and repeal Medicaid expansion, as well as slash funds from the Social Security Disability Insurance program.
But actually passing any of these changes has proven politically challenging, if not impossible. Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid are some of the most popular federal programs in the United States. Republicans tried to make major cuts to Medicaid in their Obamacare repeal bill in 2017 and failed miserably. That legislative push even played a significant role in their losing the House majority in the 2018 midterm elections. Previous efforts to privatize Medicare and Social Security, championed by then-House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), also fell flat politically and alienated a lot of older, typically more conservative, voters.
Meanwhile, Democrats, particularly those running for the presidential nomination, have made a significant effort to defend these federal programs. So much so that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Vice President Joe Biden have been in a tense back-and-forth for several weeks over their records on Social Security. Sanders’ campaign has attacked Biden over his record of backing entitlement reforms that would have cut Social Security benefits. Biden’s presidential campaign has been working to assure voters that he wants to expand the retirement benefits program, not cut it.
Now, Trump, in his typically boastful fashion, is asserting that changing entitlement programs would be easy — in a presidential election year, no less.
Here’s the full exchange between CNBC’s Joe Kernen and Trump:
JOE KERNEN: Entitlements ever be on your plate?
PRESIDENT TRUMP: At some point they will be. We have tremendous growth. We’re going to have tremendous growth. This next year I― it’ll be toward the end of the year. The growth is going to be incredible. And at the right time, we will take a look at that. You know, that’s actually the easiest of all things, if you look, cause it’s such a―
JOE KERNEN: If you’re willing―
PRESIDENT TRUMP: ―big percentage.
JOE KERNEN: ―to do some of the things that you said you wouldn’t do in the past, though, in terms of Medicare―
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Well, we’re going― we’re going look. We also have― assets that we’ve never had. I mean we’ve never had growth like this. We never had a consumer that was taking in, through― different means, over $10,000 a family. We never had the kind of― the kind of things that we have. Look, our country is the hottest in the world. We have the hottest economy in the world. We have the best unemployment numbers we’ve ever had. African American, Asian American. Hispanics are doing so incredibly. Best they’ve ever done. Black. Best they’ve ever done. African American. The numbers are incredible. The poverty numbers. The unemployment and the employment. There’s― there is a difference, actually. But the unemployment and employment numbers for African Americans are the best we’ve ever had. You know, we just― came up with a chart, and it was a very important to number to me. African American youth has the highest, by far, unemployment. The best unemployment numbers that they’ve ever had. And the best employment numbers. Right now we have almost 160 million people working in the United States, and we’ve never even been close to that, Joe.