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© Reuters. U.S. President Joe Biden makes a statement about gasoline prices and oil company profits in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., October 31, 2022. REUTERS/Leah Millis
By Nandita Bose and Trevor Hunnicutt
HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden warned Florida voters that Social Security and Medicare could be repealed by Republicans, an effort to make healthcare and retirement benefits an issue ahead of elections determining whether Democrats hold Congress.
“You’ve been paying into Social Security your whole life, you earned it, now these guys want to take it away,” Biden said in a speech describing the programs as “under siege” by Republicans. “Who in the hell do they think they are?”
The speech on Tuesday at a sparsely attended South Florida community center came just seven days ahead of U.S. midterm elections on Nov. 8 that will test Biden’s fellow Democrats keep a narrow congressional majority.
The day’s events marked Biden’s first in office of a partisan nature in Florida. It was an early test of his ability to challenge Florida governor and potential 2024 rival Ron DeSantis on his home turf, a state the president lost in 2020 to Republican former President Donald Trump.
Biden, whose approval rating is below 40%, has said he intends to run in 2024 but not formally announced plans to do so. DeSantis, a Republican who is seeking re-election against Democratic candidate Charlie Crist, is widely believed to be considering a presidential run in 2024, along with Trump.
On Tuesday, Biden also plans to attend campaign events for Crist and U.S. Representative Val Demings, a Democrat who is seeking a Senate seat held by Republican Marco Rubio.
Democrat strategists worry that Florida, a closely contested political theater for decades, is starting to decidedly lean Republican. They hope that they can push back against those trends by making a campaign issue out of purported risks to the popular Social Security and Medicare programs under Republican leadership.
Florida has one the largest shares of senior citizens among U.S. states.
Republican Senator Rick Scott of Florida has proposed requiring Congress to periodically pass legislation renewing Social Security, Medicare and other government programs, or letting those benefits lapse.
Biden and DeSantis, meanwhile, have clashed over multiple issues including COVID-19 vaccines, abortion and LGBT rights.
Biden met DeSantis last month during a trip to the state to assess devastation from Hurricane Ian. They greeted each other warmly and stood shoulder to shoulder as they met with victims of the hurricane.
In recent weeks, the White House has lowered its earlier optimism about the midterm elections and administration officials say they are now worried Democrats could lose control of both chambers of Congress.
Recent polls have shown Democrats, who once had comfortable leads in some Senate races, on a knife’s edge. Senate elections that were considered toss-ups between the two parties are now leaning Republican as high inflation persists.
Losing control of one or both houses of Congress would profoundly shape the next two years of Biden’s presidency, with Republicans expected to block legislation on family leave, abortion, policing and other Biden priorities.
The last time a Democrat won a presidential or Senate election in Florida was 2012, with Republicans holding an advantage in registered voters in the state, 5.2 million versus 4.9 million. But unaffiliated voters total 3.9 million and represent an increasingly important part of the electorate.
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