As Barack Obama’s bus cruised through the heartland last week, the media told us a fair amount about what the president said. In Alpha, Illinois, Obama gave a less-than-clear explanation of the amount of wages subject to the Social Security payroll tax, and then let it slip that apparently he supports a change in the way cost of living benefits are calculated, most likely using the so-called chained CPI. In Cannon Falls, Minnesota, the president said that Social Security is “one of our most important social insurance programs that we have,” and argued against calling it an entitlement, since people earn their benefits through deductions from their paychecks. He repeated what he had said in the past: “Social Security is not the cause of our debt and our deficit.” In St. Louis, he told NBC affiliate KSDK that “we could have had a grand bargain that would have reduced our deficit a lot more than the deal that actually emerged.”
And so it went as the president tried to connect with voters. While he was meeting and greeting outside the Beltway, I was in Columbia, Missouri, holding one of CJR’s own periodic town halls. My takeaway from seniors at the Columbia Activity Senior Center: Pols beware! Connecting with voters might be hard no matter what you say. The people with whom I chatted said they had an uneasy feeling about both Democrat Claire McCaskill, who is up for reelection next year, and Republican congressman Blaine Luetkemeyer, who represents Columbia. They were not sure if either of them had their constituents’ interests at heart. Seventy-seven-year-old Dorothy Kyger, a volunteer in the Center’s gift shop, was almost apologetic as she described how she felt. “I feel they should represent us,” she told me. “But, no, they are not representing my ideas. I have felt this way a long time.” Still, she hoped that “people in Congress would come to their senses and think about the people they are representing.”
Kyger considers herself an independent; she was leaning more Democratic now, but wasn’t sure she would vote for McCaskill. She is unsure that McCaskill stands for what matters to her. As for Luetkemeyer, she had heard him talk recently and was not impressed. “He’s trying to read some economics books to figure out what to do,” she said. “He was essentially saying he didn’t know what to do. His feeling is nobody helped him, and he got where he got himself, meaning he didn’t get any government subsidies.”
Kyger is concerned about Medicare, but says she has not panicked about it yet. “I have been on the recipient end of Medicare and am very grateful. I hear Medicare is going broke, and I hear both positive and negative things and don’t know who to believe which is why I don’t get super hyper about it.” Although Kyger has been involved in community meetings in an effort to learn more, she admits sometimes she simply doesn’t listen to what the pols say. “I just turn off,” she says. “Finding all those dirty things about people. It’s demoralizing. It’s just nasty and too many people get hurt.”
Sixty-two-year old Mike McMillen was on his way to a bridge game at the Center when he pulled up a chair to talk. He said he was semi-retired and receiving about $1500 a month from Social Security. He believed in privatizing the system because that way his family could get his benefit. He admitted he knew “very little” about Social Security and Medicare and had some misconceptions. “They’ve taken our money and have expanded the original role for Social Security,” he said. In particular, disability benefits bothered him. I explained that both survivors’ benefits and disability benefits had long been part of the program and that Social Security protects families from loss of income in old age, from a disability, or when the breadwinner dies. This is not well understood by the public. The only thing he knew about Medicare came from taking care of his mother. “Every month I get a ton of paper. I bet they kill a forest whenever they send out that stuff.” Some doctors, he said, would not take Medicare.