Can Rick Perry save Barack Obama? A slew of new polls suggests the president is in deep trouble heading into 2012. In a typical sounding, the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 44 percent of Americans approve of the job Obama is doing while 51 percent disapprove.
Those are ugly numbers. But another number might factor into a prospective Obama versus Perry race: 52 million. That's roughly the number of Americans who receive Social Security.
Perry, the governor of Texas, has called Social Security a “Ponzi scheme.” He also told Andrew Romano at TheDailyBeast.com that Medicare and Social Security weren’t the sort of things the Founding Fathers had in mind when they said that government should provide for the general welfare. “From my perspective,” Perry said, “the states could substantially better operate those programs if that’s what those states decided to do.”
If Republicans nominate Perry, it’s hard to believe the Obama camp won’t exploit his disdain for Medicare and Social Security in a consistent advertising barrage. Voters, of course, don’t watch such ads in isolation. They see them in the context of all the other ads on TV, along with whatever is percolating in the news.
And that's where Representative Paul Ryan comes in. All but a handful of House and Senate Republicans voted in favor of his budget plan, which sought to transform Medicare, the health care system for Americans over age 65, into a voucher system that, over time, would cover an increasingly smaller portion of the average beneficiary's medical bills.
Democrats warned that the Ryan budget was politically toxic; in a special election in New York’s 26th congressional district in May, they appeared to prove it. Democrat Kathy Hochul won the conservative district by tying her opponent to the Ryan plan. Congressional Democrats have been preparing to campaign on Medicare ever since.
If Democratic Senate and House campaigns are busy attacking their Republican opponents on Medicare -- a likely prospect at this remove -- and the Obama campaign is making Medicare and Social Security the basis of attacks on Perry, the Democrats could find themselves with a highly unusual (for Democrats) degree of message unity.
Obama lost the 65-and-over vote by 10 points in 2008. In the 2010 midterm, Republicans won that demographic by a whopping 16 points. Those are two good reasons for Democrats to focus on Medicare and Social Security in 2012. As Obama's sinking poll numbers show, two better reasons are the economy and unemployment, which look like they will continue to be dismal topics for the White House.
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.)