By Alexander Bolton
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Thursday strongly criticized President Obama for not taking a more forceful stance on Social Security in the presidential campaign.
Sanders, founder of the Senate's Defending Social Security Caucus and a leading voice on the issue in the Senate Democratic caucus, said he was deeply concerned by Obama's effort to minimize differences between himself and Mitt Romney.
"It was very distressing. It was very distressing not only because it is extremely bad public policy and will cause serious damage to a whole lot of vulnerable Americans. It was also bad because he's going against what the vast majority of the American people want and it's going to be very bad for his re-election effort," said Sanders in an interview.
"The American people in poll after poll after poll have been very clear, do not cut Social Security and for the president to say I expect that my position is somewhat similar to Gov. Romney is very, very distressing," Sanders said.
Obama said he did not see a major difference between himself and Romney when moderator Jim Lehrer asked about Social Security at Wednesday night's debate in Denver.
"You know, I suspect that, on Social Security, we've got a somewhat similar position. Social Security is structurally sound. It's going to have to be tweaked the way it was by Ronald Reagan and Speaker -- Democratic Speaker Tip O'Neill. But it is -- the basic structure is sound," he told the national television audience.
The answer sent shockwaves among Obama's liberal and labor allies, who have made protecting Social Security from cuts one of their highest priorities.
"My jaw dropped," said Nancy Altman, co-chair of the Strengthen Social Security coalition and campaign, which includes the AFL-CIO, MoveOn.org Political Action, and the Service Employees International Union.
"My reaction was, "Then Mr. President, you don't know the governor's record on Social Security.'"
In 2007, Romney endorsed then President George W. Bush's proposal to create personal savings accounts so they can make investments that have a higher return than government debt. In his book, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, Romney wrote that individual retirement accounts offer an option to repair Social Security.
In the same book, he praised the option of gradually raising the retirement age as having "a certain logic to it" and at a conference in November he said "we should slowly raise the retirement age" for the next generation of retirees.
At a town hall in New Hampshire last year, Romney discussed means-testing Social Security, an idea liberals hate because they argue doing so might undermine the universality of the program.
Romney has opposed raising the payroll tax cap, which Sanders and other liberals support to extend Social Security's solvency.
Payroll taxes only apply to the first $106,800 of income. As a result, middle-income workers pay a higher percentage of their income in payroll taxes than people earning hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars per year.
The Strengthen Social Security coalition supports eliminating the cap as a way to ensure adequate funding for Social Security over the next 75 years.
Roger Hickey, co-director of Campaign for America's Future, a liberal advocacy group and a member of the Strengthen Social Security coalition said he did not understand Obama's answer.
"I was dumbfounded," said Hickey. "He could have said, "Lets see if we agree on Social Security, I'm not in favor of cutting benefits, I'm not in favor of privatizing like you and your running mate have advocated.'"
Obama's comments Wednesday add to growing concern among liberal allies that if elected he might cut a deal with Republicans next year to cut Social Security. Cuts in program benefits were reportedly on the table during negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in 2011.
"We were concerned when the president put it on the table in negotiations with Republicans before and we've been warning the president not to do that when the fiscal cliff negotiations start," he said.
Sanders and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have spearheaded efforts to protect Social Security.
Reid warned colleagues last year to "leave Social Security alone" because "it is not in crisis at this stage".
Last month, Sanders, Reid and 27 other Democratic senators signed a letter pledging to oppose any cuts to Social Security as part of a broader deficit-reduction package.
"We believe it would be a serious mistake to cut Social Security benefits for current or future beneficiaries as part of a deficit-reduction package," they wrote. "To be sure, Social Security has its own long-term challenges that will need to be addressed in the decades ahead. But the budget and Social Security are separate and should be considered separately."