Former Vice President Joe Biden said Wednesday he would protect Social Security benefits if elected president, as he beats back a stream of criticism from 2020 primary rival Sen. Bernie Sanders.
"No. No. No. No," Biden told MSNBC's "Morning Joe" when asked if he would cut Social Security if he wins the White House. "And we weren't talking about cutting them either then."
With less than two weeks before the Iowa caucuses, the first-in-the-nation voting contest, polling suggests Biden and Sanders have the best chances to win the Democratic presidential nomination in a 12-person field. In recent weeks, Sanders has denounced Biden's record more often — first over the former vice president's 2002 Senate vote to authorize military force in Iraq, then for past comments saying he would consider reforms to Social Security.
Sanders' campaign released a video ad Tuesday night featuring Biden's 1995 comments suggesting a willingness to put entitlement programs on the chopping block. In the clip, Biden says that, "When I argued if we should freeze federal spending, I meant Social Security, as well. I meant Medicare and Medicaid."
It then cuts to a Sanders campaign rally, where the Vermont independent says, "We are not going to cut Social Security. We are going to expand benefits."
The senator's campaign has also pointed to comments from Biden — who has called during his career to keep budget deficits under control — saying during his 2008 presidential campaign that he would put Social Security and Medicare "on the table." Some lawmakers have increasingly called for fixing Social Security, which projects that its trust fund could run out by 2035.
The disagreement touches on one of the core questions of the Democratic primary: whether voters support a candidate like Sanders who wants a vast expansion of the social safety net, or a candidate like Biden who warns about moving too quickly to boost benefits and about ballooning budget deficits.
Biden has enjoyed a consistent lead in polls among the oldest Democratic voters — the ones who receive Social Security benefits. A CNN poll released Wednesday found 37% of registered Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents above age 65 nationally back Biden. No other candidate topped 11% of support among that group.
Sanders had a 27% to 24% edge over Biden in the same poll among all Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents who responded. The lead is within the survey's margin of error.
On Wednesday, Biden contended Sanders and his allies have taken past comments on Social Security out of context. Biden likened the criticism to the prospect of his campaign attacking Sanders for opposing some gun control legislation in the 1990s.
"I mean, he's made up for that. He's indicated that was past," Biden said of Sanders' record on guns.
A Sanders campaign spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Biden bringing up Sanders' gun control record.
Biden said his 2020 campaign Social Security plan would not only make the program "solvent for my grandchildren" but also increase payments for very elderly Americans. He aims to do so in part by making wealthy Americans pay more into the system.
Democrats have consistently used calls to protect Social Security and Medicare — two of the most popular U.S. government programs — to try to win over older voters in elections. They did so in the 2018 midterms, arguing the GOP would try to chop down the programs to make up for budget deficits of $1.5 trillion or more generated by the 2017 tax law.
President Donald Trump set himself apart in the 2016 Republican presidential primary by promising to shield the programs from cuts. Since then, members of his administration have said they could try "entitlement reform" — which generally refers to proposals to roll back programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid or food stamps.
Asked by CNBC on Wednesday if entitlements would ever be "on your plate," Trump responded, "At some point they will be." He did not specify which government programs he could target.