MANCHESTER, N.H. - Gov. Christie proposed an overhaul of federal entitlements Tuesday that would cut $1 trillion in spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid over a decade, a bold stroke aimed at reviving his presidential aspirations.
Christie, trailing potential rivals for the 2016 Republican nomination in polls, said the changes were needed both to preserve the safety-net programs and to stabilize federal finances.
"Every other national priority will be sacrificed, our economic growth will grind to a halt, and our national security will be put at even graver risk" without cost cutting, Christie said during a speech at St. Anselm College.
The governor called for reduced Social Security benefits for seniors earning more than $80,000, and ending payments entirely for those making $200,000 and up, as well as an increase in the retirement age to 69 from 67.
"I will not pander, I will not flip-flop, and I'm not afraid to tell you the truth as I see it," Christie said. "This is a conversation Washington politicians don't have, because they don't believe the American people have the appetite for hard truths."
The plan would require wealthier seniors to pay more for their Medicare premiums and gradually increase the eligibility age to 67 by 2040.
Christie also wants to transfer management and funding of Medicaid, the health-care program for the poor, to the states. The federal government would contribute a fixed amount per enrollee.
It was perhaps the biggest and most detailed policy proposal so far in the 2016 race, and is sure to draw fire from Democratic and Republican opponents. While it was a risky move for Christie, analysts said, it also offered the opportunity to brand himself as a leader who can take on tough but important fights.
"Chris Christie has to take a risk," Washington-based GOP strategist Bruce Haynes said. "At one time he was the front-runner, then the bridge scandal came and he looked like a petty politician. He lost his brand as the tough truth-teller."
Tackling the nation's toughest fiscal problem at the onset of the race is a bold way to try to restore that image, Haynes said. "That's how you do it - go big or go home."
"I'm not sure how effective it will be, since proposals like this create a lot of anxiety among older voters, and they are the most reliable voters," said Spencer Kimball, a Republican pollster who teaches political communications at Boston's Emerson College.
Even staunch Republicans and tea-party sympathizers over 65 are wary of talk of benefit cuts, he said. "Their Medicare trumps their party affiliation nine times out of 10," Kimball said.
Christie was careful in his speech to stress that the changes he was talking about would not affect those in or near retirement.
With both deficits and health-care costs declining, political pressure has eased since 2011, when President Obama was negotiating with House Republicans for a "grand bargain" budget deal that would have controlled entitlements.
But the national debt is still growing as the nation borrows to finance the increased costs of the programs, driven by an aging population, said Ron Haskins, a senior fellow in economics at the Brookings Institution.
"Even though the annual deficit is declining . . . we are increasing the debt at a pretty strong rate," Haskins said. "That's still a hell of a burden to put on future generations."
None of the announced potential GOP candidates has talked about entitlements in any detail. There is not much political incentive to get too specific in a campaign, because any talk of a fix involves unpalatable choices: cuts in benefits or increased taxes.
"This is the kind of discussion presidential campaigns should be all about," said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a national group that advocates against deficit spending and debt.
Some Democrats, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, are heading in the direction opposite Christie, calling for increased entitlement benefits. Both have been mentioned as potential challengers to Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primary.
Interest groups representing senior citizens criticized Christie's proposals. Richard Fiesta, head of the labor-backed Alliance for Retired Americans, said the ideas are a way "to get one's toe under the tent to begin dismantling Social Security piece by piece."
The programs should be expanded, since "decades of stagnant wages and erosion of employer-sponsored pensions have left Americans unable to save for retirement," Fiesta said.
In his speech, Christie tried to demonstrate credibility on entitlements based on his record in New Jersey, where he has pared down the state workforce and early in his tenure negotiated increases in public worker pension and benefit contributions. (Christie has since reduced the state's promised pension payments, a move now the subject of a court battle.)
He is now pushing for a second round of changes to public worker benefits, though Democrats who control the Legislature so far have little appetite for it.
Some have suggested his national message will be weakened if he cannot get more changes at home, but Christie pushed back on the notion.
"Nobody else on the national scene is talking about this except Paul Ryan," Christie told reporters. "If the Legislature decides they'd rather cave to special interests that line their pocket with campaign money rather than do what's better for the people of New Jersey, I don't know how I'm a loser there."
Standing outside Caesario's, a pizza shop in downtown Manchester where he made the rounds with his wife, Mary Pat, Christie said he was not fazed by unfavorable poll numbers. One survey recently found that more than half of likely Republican primary voters would not consider supporting him.
"It's because I speak my mind," Christie said.
The governor continues a swing through New Hampshire on Wednesday, visiting Chez Vachon, a French Canadian restaurant in Manchester that is a favorite political campaign stop, before holding his first town-hall meeting in the state.
He plans a second town-hall meeting Friday, when he is also scheduled to participate in a leadership summit with other prospective GOP presidential candidates.