NEW ORLEANS – The audience reception for President Obama and Paul Ryan at Friday’s AARP convention couldn’t have differed more: Obama won cheers for discussing his signature health care law, while Ryan drew the most aggressively negative response he has faced as a GOP vice presidential candidate for vowing to repeal it.
Obama’s and Ryan’s back-to-back speeches before the nation’s largest senior-citizens lobby also exposed just how wide the gulf is between their ideas on how to reform America’s entitlement programs, as each man insinuated that the other’s plan spelled certain destruction for the nation’s seniors.
The audience of several thousand clearly came down on Obama’s side. Despite Ryan’s exhortations that the president had “turned Medicare into a piggy bank for 'Obamacare' ” by cutting $716 billion in provider payments —a claim that fact-checking watchdogs have called misleading for a variety of reasons —he was met with a loud round of boos and cries of “no!” as he pledged to repeal the health care reform law, which AARP as an organization supports.
The heckling from the audience softened, but continued, as Ryan talked through his own Medicare plan. The crowd did applaud when he introduced his mother, Betty Douglas, a 78-year-old retiree who he says turned her life around with Social Security survivors’ benefits after his father died when Ryan was 16. He also won applause for pledging to reduce the deficit and cut spending.
The Obama campaign immediately seized on the event, issuing a statement headlined “The Reviews Are In on Paul Ryan’s AARP Appearance” featuring a series of tweets from reporters noting the negative crowd response.
Obama, addressing the conference via satellite, argued that his health care policies have strengthened Medicare and that his opponents would leave seniors at the mercy of insurance companies.
"There has been a lot of talk about Medicare and Social Security that hasn't been on the level," Obama told seniors. The repeal of the 2010 health care law, he said, would mean billions of dollars in new profits for insurance companies and would raise health care costs for seniors.
“Their plan replaces guaranteed medical benefits with a voucher that won’t keep up with costs. When they tell you that their plan lets you keep your doctor, they’re leaving out one thing, and that’s the facts,” Obama said of the approach put forward by his GOP rivals.
Ryan, asked about his plan during a question-and-answer section, said that Democrats call his plan a “voucher” because it is “a poll-tested word basically designed to scare today’s seniors.”
“Our plan empowers future seniors to choose the coverage that works best for them from a list of plans that are required to offer at least the same level of benefits as traditional Medicare. This financial support system is designed to guarantee that seniors can always afford Medicare coverage—no exceptions,” he said. “Our idea is to force insurance companies to compete against each other to better serve seniors, with more help for the poor and the sick—and less help for the wealthy.”
Obama’s take on that idea? "No American should ever spend their golden years at the mercy of insurance companies,” he said.
The divide between the two candidates continued with Social Security. The president said, "We have to keep the promise on Social Security by reforming it and not handing it over the Wall Street.” But Ryan accused him of lacking the “political will” necessary to implement reform.
“He’s put his own job security over your retirement security,” Ryan said. For the first time on the campaign trail, he outlined the Republican ticket’s proposal, which is to slightly raise the retirement age over time and slow the growth of benefits for higher-income Americans.
Both men tried to paint themselves as the bipartisan reformer open to compromise and the other side as unwilling. Obama said he would be willing to work with Republicans; Ryan said he hadn’t moved an inch toward common ground. Obama noted that he took the idea for the individual mandate from the health care plan that Mitt Romney implemented while governor of Massachusetts; Ryan said Medicare reforms to increase choice and competition date back to the Clinton administration and have enjoyed bipartisan support.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll this week found the public prefers Obama’s approach to Medicare over Romney’s, 47 percent to 37 percent.