By Trevor Hunnicutt and Jarrett Renshaw
TAMPA (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden traveled on Thursday to Florida and positioned his Democratic party as the sole protector of Social Security and Medicare in an aim to reclaim the state, which has a large population of retirees who rely on the programs.
Speaking to supporters in a one-time battleground state that has leaned Republican in recent years, Biden outlined a list of achievements, such as allowing the federal government to negotiate Medicare drug prices and impose price caps on insulin. He said Republicans are fighting to roll back those efforts while also seeking cuts to popular social safety net programs.
“I know that a lot of Republicans, their dream is to cut Social Security and Medicare. Well, let me say this: If that’s your dream, I’m your nightmare,” Biden said in Tampa.
Biden’s trip is part of a blitz to at least 20 states by him and members of his Cabinet following his State of the Union speech to Congress on Tuesday.
As the president prepares to launch his re-election bid, top aides and Democratic strategists debate how seriously he should campaign in Florida, where the last Democratic presidential candidate to win was Barack Obama in 2012.
Both former President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis are early favorites in the fight for the Republican nomination for the next presidential election in 2024. Both would have a home field advantage over Biden in Florida.
Still, Biden believes his policies could resonate in the state, where one in five residents is over the age of 65. Polls show Democrats are perceived as more likely to protect the Social Security and Medicare programs, which provide basic income and healthcare to senior citizens.
Biden has sought to link Republicans to the idea of cutting funding for both programs as part of negotiations over increasing the United States’ $31.4 trillion debt limit.
Kevin McCarthy, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, has repeatedly said his party will not try to scale back the two largest benefit programs.
Biden drew boos from Republicans at his State of the Union speech when he said some hardline conservatives want to end Social Security and Medicare. He then said he took their response as indicating agreement that the programs should be protected.
“So folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security, Medicare is off the books now, right? All right. We’ve got unanimity,” Biden said. “I enjoy conversion.”
The White House has not laid out a detailed plan on how to fund the programs when they start to become insolvent, which is expected as soon as 2028 in the case of Medicare’s hospitalization benefits.
At the Tampa event, the White House distributed a pamphlet entitled “A 12-Point Plan to Rescue America: U.S. Senator Rick Scott (R-FL),” which highlighted that senator’s proposal to require Medicare and Social Security to be reauthorized every five years.
“The very idea of the Senator from Florida wants to put Social Security, Medicare on the chopping block every five years I find to be somewhat outrageous,” Biden said.
Scott, who says Biden is distorting his plan’s intentions, released an attack ad this week calling on Biden to resign and accusing him of being a danger to Medicare and Social Security.
Asked about the ad in a Noticias Telemundo interview that aired Thursday evening, Biden said he had no comment, and when pressed, added: “It’s Rick Scott.”
Some Republicans have also been critical of the Scott plan. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called it a “bad idea” in a radio interview on Thursday. “I think it will be a challenge for him to deal with this in his own re-election in Florida, a state with more elderly people than any other state in America,” McConnell said on the Terry Meiners radio show.
Florida, the nation’s third-most-populous state, was long seen as a critical battleground in U.S. presidential elections.
But Democrats have struggled there in recent elections, and DeSantis last year won a second term as governor by nearly 20 percentage points.
“There is no reason at this point to devote national resources into Florida in 2024,” a senior Democrat told Reuters at a recent party conference in Philadelphia.
Biden has said he intends to run for re-election and he is expected to formally launch his bid in the coming weeks.
Jen O’Malley Dillon, a senior Biden aide who ran his 2020 campaign and is expected to play a key role in his next one, does not see Florida as essential for a Biden victory in 2024 and has preferred to focus more on Arizona and Georgia, states that have grown more favorable for Democrats, according to people familiar with her thinking.
Steve Schale, a Florida Democratic operative and Biden ally, who ran Obama’s campaign in the state in 2008, said he understands the party’s challenges in Florida.
“My concern is when you start ceding states that you won three of the last six elections in, is that smart?,” Schale said. “There should be a longer-term conversation about Florida, but I understand the realities of the 2024 map.”
(Reporting By Jarrett Renshaw and Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Jeff Mason, Chris Reese, David Gregorio, Jonathan Oatis and Deepa Babington)