Liberals took comfort in the president’s speech to the AARP Friday when he promised to defend Social Security. But his talk left a whole lot of wiggle room for reporters to read between the lines and try—try is the operative word here—to find out what his real intentions are for Social Security. As my colleague Brendan Nyhan writes, in the event of an Obama victory, the president may have some increased leverage in the upcoming “fiscal cliff” scenario, but his suggestion that he can break the political stalemate in a second term may be wishful thinking.

In any event, we really should be zooming in on what the president has in mind for Social Security. If he does bust the stalemate, what will he do about Social Security? Either way, how far will he go to placate the budget cutters?

“It’s my job to make sure that Medicare and Social Security remain strong for today’s seniors for future generations,” the president told the AARP crowd. That can mean a lot of things. A questioner in the audience got specific and asked if the president supported raising the cap on the amount of income that’s subject to the payroll tax, which funds Social Security benefits. Currently, the first $110,100 of income is subject to payroll taxes. An NPR blog noted that this means most Americans pay the tax on all of their income, but those with incomes of $1 million pay the tax only on about 10 percent. Obama told AARP members:

I do think that looking at changing the cap is an important aspect of putting Social Security on a more stable footing. And what I’ve said is that I’m willing to work with Republicans and examine all their ideas, but what I’m not going to do, as a matter or principle, is to slash benefits or privatize Social Security and suddenly turn it over to Wall Street.
Okay, we know Obama is not keen on privatizing Social Security, but what about other changes, like raising the retirement age or altering the COLA (cost of living) formula, both of which are benefit cuts, even if that is disguised in the rhetoric.

Or would he consider tinkering with the benefit formula in a way that could begin to means test the system, as Mitt Romney revealed he would do on 60 Minutes And would those kinds of changes mean that Social Security will no longer be social insurance, but morph into some means-tested welfare program, like food stamps or TANF, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families?

That’s for journalists to probe, but it may not be that easy. On Morning Joe, Mark Halperin, a senior political analyst for Time and MSNBC, tried to get David Axlerod, Obama’s senior campaign adviser, to spill the beans about Obama’s plan for Social Security. Axelrod wasn’t spilling anything. Instead, he used vague words. What does this fuzzy stuff mean to viewers: “the approach has to be a balanced one” or “we’re not going to cut our way to prosperity?” Like so many others, Axelrod seemed to follow the advice of that seminal political consulting team, Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter, who advised clients, “Never explain anything. The more you have to explain, the more difficult it is to win support.”

Halperin asked a second time: What’s the president’s proposal? Again nothing, except that Axelrod said “this is not the time” to have that discussion. “We’re not going to have that discussion right now unless the Congress wants to sit at the table and say, ‘OK, we’re ready to move on a balanced approach to this.’” Apparently, to Axelrod, an election campaign is not the right time for the incumbent president to tell voters his plans for Social Security, one of the biggest issues that will surface after November 6.

In the absence of specifics, we’re left with smoke signals rising above the Beltway. The Washington Post’s Lori Montgomery, known for sending them up on occasion, lofted one last week when she reported that the key senators from both parties were trying to craft a post-election strategy for dealing with the deficit.

One of the tactics she discussed was a postponement and redesign of sequestration, a new automatic debt-reduction plan “if Congress does not act in six months.” That plan, she wrote, “could look a lot like the recommendations of Obama’s independent fiscal commission.” That’s the Simpson-Bowles Commission, and the report of its chairmen, Republican Alan Simpson and Democrat Erskine Bowles, called for major changes to Social Security. Reporters, like Halperin, need to ask the president about that next time they get the chance, and keep asking until the get some answers that mean something.

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Trudy Lieberman is a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health and a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR’s healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.