WASHINGTON — President Trump suggested on Wednesday that he would be willing to consider cuts to social safety-net programs like Medicare to reduce the federal deficit if he wins a second term, an apparent shift from his 2016 campaign promise to protect funding for such entitlements.
The president made the comments on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Despite promises to reduce the federal budget deficit, it has ballooned under Mr. Trump’s watch as a result of sweeping tax cuts and additional government spending.
Asked in an interview with CNBC if cuts to entitlements would ever be on his plate, Mr. Trump answered yes.
“At some point they will be,” Mr. Trump said, before pointing to United States economic growth. “At the right time, we will take a look at that.”
Mr. Trump suggested that curbing spending on Medicare, the government health care program for the elderly, was a possibility.
“We’re going to look,” he said.
The interview left many questions unanswered, including whether Mr. Trump would consider touching Social Security or what part of Medicare he would be willing to shave. The president veered from answering the question about entitlements to talking about the robustness of the American economy and how his policies have helped alleviate poverty and boost jobs for minorities, perhaps suggesting that the need for social safety-net programs at their current levels had waned.
The president has already proposed cuts for some safety-net programs. His last budget proposal called for a total of $1.9 trillion in cost savings from mandatory safety-net programs, like Medicaid and Medicare. It also called for spending $26 billion less on Social Security programs, the federal retirement program, including a $10 billion cut to the Social Security Disability Insurance program, which provides benefits to disabled workers.
Spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is expected to cost the federal government more than $30 trillion through 2029, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Mr. Trump’s willingness to consider such cuts marks a shift from four years ago, when he stood out in a field of deficit-minded Republicans in the 2016 primary race with a promise to shield entitlements from cuts.
In a tweet in May 2015, a month before he formally began his campaign, Mr. Trump discussed another Republican’s promises to keep entitlements intact, former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas.
“Huckabee is a nice guy but will never be able to bring in the funds so as not to cut Social Security, Medicare & Medicaid,” Mr. Trump tweeted. “I will.”
In his formal campaign announcement that year, he said, “Save Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security without cuts. Have to do it. Get rid of the fraud. Get rid of the waste and abuse, but save it.”
Democrats are also wrangling over entitlement programs, which are among the fastest growing federal expense. Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. have been arguing for days over Mr. Biden’s past comments about cuts to social security, a reminder of how sensitive the issue is for voters.
Republicans have largely avoided talking about rolling back welfare programs since Mr. Trump became president, assuming that doing so would be a non-starter. Following the $1.5 trillion tax cut that Republicans passed in 2017, some suggested that they would quickly turn to reduce the cost of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Those ideas gained little traction and federal spending has continued to grow.
The Treasury Department said last week that the federal budget deficit surpassed $1 trillion in 2019. It was the first calendar year since 2012 that the deficit topped that threshold. To help finance deficits, which require the government to sell debt, the Treasury Department plans to begin issuing 20-year bonds.
Other Trump administration officials have been more careful in discussing the need to cut spending on entitlement programs. Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin demurred earlier this month when pressed on CNBC about how to scale back spending on entitlements.
“All I’m going to say is that we talked about there needs to be bipartisan review of government spending and that’s something at the appropriate time we’ll look at,” Mr. Mnuchin said.