Last week, conservatives took to the Twittersphere and the airwaves to malign "Julia," one of the most ill-advised campaign tools in recent history. Indeed, the slideshow depicting the life of an average American woman, and all the help she gets from the government, presented so many factual errors that even the Washington Post's Fact Check had to jump into the fray.
One of the most egregious claims Team Obama made about Julia's life pertained to Social Security: "Under President Obama: Julia retires. After years of contributing to Social Security, she receives monthly benefits that help her retire comfortably, without worrying that she’ll run out of savings. This allows her to volunteer at a community garden. Under Mitt Romney: Julia's benefits could be cut by 40%."
The vague wording about Julia's scenario in a two-Obama-term world completely ignores reality: Social Security, without some serious reform, will exhaust itself by 2033. Of course, the language supporting Obama fails to mention how it would save Social Security. By using language condemning Romney for cutting benefits, it seems to imply that Obama wouldn't. Of course, something must be done -- but Obama doesn't say what. Just...not what Romney would do. But would Romney "cut benefits by 40%?"
As you can see, all of this results in some seriously misleading messaging:
Note how carefully the Obama campaign’s statement is worded. It says that, under Obama, Julia “receives monthly benefits that help her retire comfortably.” It does not promise that projected benefits will not be cut, but it certainly implies that.
And how does the Obama campaign figure that Romney, by contrast, has Social Security proposals that “could” cut benefits by 40 percent? Here, the campaign assumes that Romney’s plan is similar to a plan advanced by three Republican senators, who proposed raising the retirement age and reducing benefits for higher wager earners — two proposals embraced by Romney.
The Social Security actuary evaluated the senators’ plan and found it could cut benefits by 40 percent for high-wage earners by 2050. (The reductions would be less for lower-wage earners — see Table B-1). However, the analysis also found that, with these changes, Social Security benefits could continue to be paid through 2084. Some might argue that the proposals are rather drastic. Still, as we have seen, if nothing is done, there won’t be enough money to pay full benefits under the current system by 2033.
In any case, Eric Fehrnstrom, a Romney senior adviser, argues that the actuary’s analysis of the senators’ plan cannot be applied to the Romney proposal because although it is “structurally similar . . .we have not specified the exact thresholds for the means-testing of Social Security.”
While Romney is proposing a cut in benefits for high-wage earners, candidate Obama in 2008 also targeted high wage earners as a way to extend Social Security’s solvency, proposing a payroll tax increase on people making more than $250,000. Then and now, Obama has opposed any increase in the retirement age, so that is a real point of contention between the two candidates.
Of course, as this fact check makes clear, even if Obama opted not to cut benefits, he would raise taxes on the same people that could experience a cut in benefits under Romney. Either way, the same group of people will see less money, either in the form of higher taxes, or less money in Social Security benefits.
So in reality, the only major, major difference in what both Obama and Republicans have said about Social Security reform lay with the possibility of raising the retirement age. The idea that Obama could claim that Romney wanted to cut benefits while implying that he, Obama, did not, is not simply realistic: it's a lie. Without a change, the program will become untenable.
In Julia's imaginary world, the "comfortable retirement" she's afforded under Social Security is a result of one of two paths of action that Obama took. Either Julia's had her benefits cut, and they supplement her personal retirement savings, or her benefits have been paid for by a millionaires' tax -- one that she might have been subject to, had she been making more than $250,000 per annum.
Perhaps we should add a new slide: "Under President Obama: Julia's small business took off, and she was subject to a payroll tax increase that siphoned off money from her income to Social Security coffers. As a result, Julia was unable to contribute as much as she may have liked into her private 401k, and upon retirement, was ironically dependent on Social Security funds."