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Will Voter Anger Dominate Fall Elections?

What it could mean for older Americans

— Damon Winter/The New York Times/Redux

Older Americans are part of that anger, says Susan MacManus, a political scientist who studies age and politics at the University of South Florida in Tampa. They’re drawn to newcomer candidates because “they’ve heard it all and seen it all.” They see it as “anything is better than what we have now,” she says.

Many older Americans aren’t concerned about cuts to their Social Security and Medicare benefits, MacManus says, because they don’t believe it will happen. At event after event that she attends as a speaker or observer, older members of audiences say they are worried most about the federal deficit. They’re reminded of the Great Depression; they also have children and grandchildren graduating college with crushing loans.

“I hear it over and over again: It’s not about me, it’s about my children and grandchildren,” she says.

President Obama appointed a commission to consider ways to reduce the federal deficit and debt. It won’t make its recommendations until after Election Day. But economists say it must include changes to entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare because they are a fast-growing portion of the federal budget.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said the commission might give lawmakers political cover to tackle the controversial idea of reining in the costs of Social Security and Medicare. Or maybe not.

“Sadly, we may just have to wait for the debt bomb to explode later this decade. Americans only respond to an obvious crisis,” Sabato says.

Holler said the angry political climate puts the deficit on the front burner and makes people understand they need to make sacrifices to solve it. Unemployment insurance extensions, he says, are just one example that should be considered for cuts.

“Everything is on the table,” Holler says. “It’s apparent the government has limited resources. That may mean reassessing some of these social insurance programs people have come to take for granted.”

How much Social Security, Medicare or social programs are changed partly will be a function of who runs the legislative branch. Democrats are likely to lose at least a couple of dozen seats in the House and five to seven in the Senate but retain their majorities, according to Nathan Gonzales, political editor at the Rothenberg Political Report, which handicaps congressional races. The Rothenberg Political Report says 79 House seats are competitive this year—and 68 of those are currently held by Democrats.

Democrats touted their victory Tuesday night in a special election to replace the late Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania. But Republicans were quick to point out that the winning Democrat did not support the landmark health care reform pushed through this year by President Obama.

“If we get a large number of Republicans, as expected, they won’t be looking to expand anything. Republicans are running on cutting taxes, cutting government, cutting spending,” Gonzales said.

Paul Lindsay, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, says they also are running on the need to repeal portions of health care reform. People age 65-plus, especially, are angry about the reform because of cuts to the Medicare program that help pay for it, he says. Voters are saying that “if there are not significant changes to the bill, they will be sending a message in November,” Lindsay said.

But Ryan Rudominer, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, says Republicans have turned off the electorate with proposals to switch Social Security to a program with private securities accounts and to partially “privatize” Medicare as well.

As politicians prepare for the fall election, Congress still must grapple with how to tackle the lagging economy. Voters ages 50 to 64 have been particularly hard-hit by the recession and often have a harder time finding work after being laid off. So cuts to unemployment compensation benefits, job training and other programs designed to create jobs would sting.

Some of the voter anger this year has focused on anti-recession measures like aiding automakers. Rother says the public anger could make lawmakers reluctant to enact legislation needed to pump up the economy.

“It creates a tension between doing what’s good for the economy, versus what’s good for your political career,” Rother says.

Tamara Lytle was Washington bureau chief and a correspondent for the Orlando Sentinel from 1997 to 2008.

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