Adviser thinks a 'President Trump' might tackle Social Security reform

Trump adviser on the need to reform social security
Trump adviser on the need to reform social security

Donald Trump has been clear when it comes to Social Security and other entitlement programs: He's not touching them.

"I want to keep Social Security intact ... I'm not going to cut it, and I'm not going to raise ages ... [T]hey want to cut it very substantially, the Republicans, and I'm not going to do that," Trump said during a radio interview this spring.

But Trump economic adviser and longtime friend Tom Barrack seemed to suggest that stance is driven by politics -- and that, if elected, Trump might change his tune.

"I think Donald Trump will stick to what he said. My personal belief is that he might do something different, because you have to do something different," Barrack said in a wide-ranging interview with CNN's Erin Burnett. "Everyone has to give something up. If we don't we're going to crash."

Barrack suggested Trump may be a lot like Ronald Reagan in terms of appointing effective leaders and bringing about change.

"I think you're going to see Donald do the same thing. And I think you're going to see him do it across the board on entitlements."

When asked whether Trump would consider tackling Social Security and Medicare reform, a spokesman for the Trump campaign said "We will not cut Medicare or Social Security benefits, but protect them both."

Trump often laments the country's debt load. Although Medicare and, to a lesser extent, Social Security are key drivers of that debt, he never makes the case publicly for reforming those programs.

"He's not making the case because it's a political suicide to make this case," Barrack said. "If you go up and start saying I'm going to attack Social Security, I'm going to attack Medicaid, I'm going to attack all these [federal] departments -- we now have 17% about of the workforce employed by the government. There goes those votes. So no smart politician is going to step into this milieu."

Trump himself acknowledged as much in that spring radio interview, noting that if you propose cutting Social Security "you're going to lose the election."

Barrack, who is executive chairman of the private equity firm Colony Capital, said "at the end of the day, somebody's gotta say you've got to move the retirement age up two years."

One of those somebody's -- besides Barrack -- might be Trump's running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence.

Related: On Social Security, Trump and Pence couldn't be more different

Pence, a fiscal conservative, has said "everything should be on the table" as an option when it comes to putting Social Security on more stable financial footing for the long run. When asked in 2010 if he'd raise the retirement age, Pence said, "I'm an all-of-the-above guy. We need look at everything on the menu."

By 2034, Social Security will only have enough revenue coming in to pay 79% of promised benefits, according to the latest estimates from the Social Security trustees.

There are many ways to make the program solvent for decades to come, but there's not universal agreement on any of them. Many Democrats prefer to raise payroll taxes on high-income households, whereas many Republicans prefer to slow the growth in benefits and raise the retirement age. Nonpartisan experts typically suggest a broad mix of changes will be needed so as not to unduly burden any one group and to adequately protect seniors against poverty.

Related: Trump adviser backs off plan to wipe out U.S. debt in 8 years

As for Medicaid and Medicare, Trump has said very little.

But his Web site indicates he would favor "block granting" Medicaid - which effectively caps how much money the federal government would give to fund states' Medicaid programs.

He also has said publicly that Medicare should be able to negotiate drug prices.

But his estimate that doing so would save $300 billion a year is way off-base. For starters, that's far more than the government actually spends on prescription drugs. And more importantly, simply negotiating drug prices would only "save a negligible amount for the federal government," according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

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