WASHINGTON (AP) - With an eye toward the 2024 campaign, President Joe Biden on Thursday ventures to Florida, a state defined by its growing retiree population and status as the unofficial headquarters of the modern-day Republican Party.
The president sees a chance to use Social Security and Medicare to drive a wedge between GOP lawmakers and their base of older voters who rely on these government programs for income and health insurance. Biden is trying to lay the groundwork for an expected reelection campaign announcement this spring.
After delivering his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Biden on Wednesday went to Wisconsin, another political battleground, where he said he would block any attempts to slash Social Security and Medicare benefits.
"All of you have been paying into the system every single paycheck you've had since you started working," Biden said. "These benefits belong to you, the American worker. You earned it. And I will not allow anyone to cut them. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever, period."
Leading Republican lawmakers insist that spending cuts to Social Security and Medicare are off the table with regard to reaching a deal to increase the government's legal borrowing authority. But enough prominent Republicans have broached the subject that Biden sees a political opportunity.
During the State of the Union address, GOP lawmakers jeered when Biden referenced a proposal by Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., to require that the programs be reauthorized every five years. The president seized on the impromptu moment, urging Republicans and Democrats alike to pledge to avoid cuts to the income and health insurance programs.
"Let's stand up for seniors," Biden said as most of those in the chamber took to their feet to applaud, knowing the dangers of being on the wrong side of an aging electorate that values these programs.
For his part, Scott said the president has misrepresented his policy ideas. He said he only wants programs up for congressional renewal every five years, which he believes is different from spending cuts to Social Security or Medicare. "They lie about it," Scott said in a written statement about how the administration has described his plan.
It's a delicate moment for Social Security and Medicare, programs that economists say will drive the national debt to unprecedented highs over the next few decades. The Social Security trust fund will be unable to pay full benefits starting in 2035, prompting some Republican lawmakers to say changes will have to be made to sustain payments.
But any proposed changes can come across as kryptonite to voters, who want their benefits preserved rather than cut. That's especially true in Republican-held Florida, where Census figures show that nearly a third of adults are older than 62.
Despite its longtime reputation as the nation's premier swing state, Florida trended toward the GOP in recent years before lurching sharply to the right last fall. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis won reelection by a staggering 19 percentage points in November, even carrying the longtime Democratic stronghold of Miami-Dade County.
By this summer, Florida is expected to be the staging ground for at least two top-tier presidential campaigns. Former President Donald Trump launched his 2024 bid nearly three months ago from his Palm Beach estate, and DeSantis is likely to join him in the coming months. Scott, believed to be the wealthiest member of the Senate, also has presidential aspirations.
Republicans have flocked to the state in recent years as well, describing it as "the free state of Florida" in a nod to DeSantis' fierce resistance to pandemic-related mandates and "woke" policies on race and gender.
At a news conference Wednesday, DeSantis talked up Florida's economy and leaned into cultural divisions while flanked by a row of gas stoves. Federal officials recently raised health concerns about the popular appliances.
"They are trying to take away your gas stove," DeSantis said. "It shows they are coming for any little thing in your life."
Multiple administration officials have said they are not banning gas stoves, with White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre saying last month, "The president does not support banning gas stoves."
Associated Press writer Fatima Hussein contributed to this report.