- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Unable to make a sizable dent in unemployment, Democrats are on the political equivalent of a golden oldies tour, pledging support for Social Security, Medicare and other venerable programs while trying to stoke voter fears about Republican intentions.

The Voting Rights Act, Americans for Disabilities Act and most recently, the 90th anniversary of the constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote have drawn attention from Democrats.

More than nostalgia is at stake as Democrats court a series of key voting blocs 11 weeks before midterm elections in which Republicans are making a strong drive to gain control of the House as well as several governorships, and perhaps even the Senate.

In his most recent radio and Internet address, President Obama accused some Republicans of “pushing to make privatizing Social Security a key part of their legislative agenda if they win a majority in Congress this fall.”


Marking the 75th anniversary of the program’s creation, he said, “We have an obligation to keep that promise, to safeguard Social Security for our seniors, people with disabilities and all Americans today, tomorrow and forever.”

Mr. Obama did not cite any Republican by name, but one prominent GOP lawmaker, Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, has proposed giving workers under age 55 an option of investing in a private account rather than remaining in the government-run Social Security system.

In response, Republicans say changes are needed to preserve the program’s financial soundness, and accuse Democrats of a diversionary tactic in a campaign dominated by voter concerns about the economy. They “are looking to change the subject to anything but their failed record on jobs,” the Republican National Committee asserted.

It’s also hard to predict the impact of the maneuvering on any postelection attempt to launch a bipartisan attack on the nation’s debt, now a record $13 trillion and growing. A presidential commission is charged with developing proposals; steps to rein in Social Security, Medicare and other government benefit programs are likely to be among them.

But the policy implications will have to wait until after Nov. 2.

For now, unemployment is 9.5 percent nationally and the recovery from the near-economic meltdown of late 2008 has slowed, thus raising economists’ fears of a double-dip recession. In an Associated Press-GfK poll conducted this past week, only 35 percent of those surveyed said the country was on the right track, an ominous sign for the Democrats who control Congress.

“We have never taken our eye off growing the economy and creating jobs,” said Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, but there appears to be little Mr. Obama and his Democratic allies can do to improve the economy in the months before the elections. And while they often warn that voting for Republicans would mean a repeat of the Bush-era economic policies, a key part of their summertime strategy is to warn voters about the changes Republicans might favor in other areas.

Mr. Obama’s remarks on Social Security marked one of numerous events that Democrats and their allied organizations orchestrated around the 75th anniversary of a program that is of particular concern to older voters. The two parties evenly split the votes of those 65 and older in the 2006 midterm elections, according to exit polls, and Republican Sen. John McCain outpolled Mr. Obama in the 2008 presidential election among that group, 53 percent to 45 percent.

Seniors generally vote in disproportionately large numbers in midterm elections, making their support even more prized this year than in 2008.

A few weeks before the Social Security observances, Mrs. Pelosi marked the 45th anniversary of Medicare, the government program that provides health care to millions. The bill was a bipartisan accomplishment, her written statement said, but now “congressional Republicans not only oppose improvements to our seniors’ health care system, but pledge to repeal them and end Medicare as we know it. …”

Like Mr. Obama, Mrs. Pelosi did not name any Republicans. But Mr. Ryan, in line to become chairman of the House Budget Committee if Republicans win control, has called for “shifting the ownership of health coverage away from the government and employers to individuals.” Instead of traditional Medicare, his plan calls for a tax credit of $2,300 for individuals and $5,700 for families to be used to purchase private coverage.