Barack Obama on Social Security
Democratic incumbent President; IL Senator (2004-2008)
On Medicare, the reforms I'm proposing reduce taxpayer subsidies to prescription drug companies and ask more from the wealthiest seniors. Our medical bills shouldn't be based on the number of tests ordered or days spent in the hospital--they should be based on the quality of care that our seniors receive. And I am open to additional reforms from both parties, so long as they don't violate the guarantee of a secure retirement. Our government shouldn't make promises we cannot keep--but we must keep the promises we've already made.
We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.
OBAMA: I suspect that, on Social Security, we've got a somewhat similar position. Social Security is structurally sound. It's going to have to be tweaked the way it was by Ronald Reagan and Democratic Speaker Tip O'Neill. But the basic structure is sound. But I want to talk about the values behind Social Security and Medicare--what's called entitlements. You know, the name itself implies some sense of dependency on the part of these folks. These are folks who've worked hard, and there are millions of people out there who are counting on this. So my approach is to say, how do we strengthen the system over the long term? And in Medicare, what we did was we said, we are going to have to bring down the costs if we're going to deal with our long-term deficits, but to do that, let's look where some of the money's going.
OBAMA: If we get our tax policies right so that they’re good for the middle class, if we reverse the policies of the last eight years that got us into this fix in the first place and that Sen. McCain supported, then we are going to be in a position to deal with Social Security and deal with Medicare, because we will have a health care plan that actually works for you, reduces spending and costs over the long term, and Social Security that is stable and solvent for all Americans and not just some.
McCAIN: What we have to do with Medicare is have the smartest people in America come together, come up with recommendations, and then, like the base-closing commission idea we had, then we should have Congress vote up or down.
However, the supposed crisis of Social Security has tripped up even our most astute liberal politicians. In May 2007, Obama accepted the premise that Social Security suffered from a mighty shortfall. Seeking to establish himself as a politician not afraid to tackle hard issues, Obama declared his support for raising the cap on income subject to Social Security taxation (currently $102,000) and chided Sen. Clinton for not doing likewise. Obama at first implied that in his administration, everything would be on the table--higher taxes, lower benefits. He later explained that he would increase taxes only on people making $250,000 or over, and that he would not reduce benefits. But Obama needlessly accepted conservative conventional wisdom, and then set a trap for himself in having to remedy a false crisis
Thus, Obama was able to cut through all the rhetoric and see the key underlying fallacy of Bush's and McCain's proposal to privatize Social Security. If we allow people to invest in riskier assets in the stock market, we will just have more losers who end up gambling with their retirement money and end up with nothing at retirement.
Q: They say for all your promises not to raise taxes on the middle class, that, in fact, you want to raise the cap on the Social Security payroll tax, and you also want to increase capital gains.
A: In terms of raising the cap on the payroll tax, right now everybody who’s making $102,000 or less pays 100% of payroll tax on 100% of their income. There are about 3% to 4% of Americans who are above $102,000 in income every year. So if you want to talk about who’s middle class, me giving cuts to folks making $60,000 or $70,000, and potentially asking more from friends of mine like Warren Buffett. That’s a debate I’m happy to have with John McCain, because it’s the people making $75,000, $50,000, $60,000 who are hurting.
OBAMA: What I have proposed is that we raise the cap on the payroll tax, because right now millionaires and billionaires don’t have to pay beyond $97,000 a year. Now most firefighters & teachers, they’re not making over $100,000 a year. In fact, only 6% of the population does. And I’ve also said that I’d be willing to look at exempting people who are making slightly above that.
Q: But that’s a tax on people under $250,000.
OBAMA: That’s why I would look at potentially exempting those who are in between. This is an option that I would strongly consider, because the alternatives, like raising the retirement age, or cutting benefits, or raising the payroll tax on everybody, including people making less than $97,000 a year--those are not good policy options
CLINTON: With all due respect, the last time we had a crisis in Social Security was 1983. President Reagan and Speaker Tip O’Neill came up with a commission. That was the best and smartest way, because you’ve got to get Republicans and Democrats together. That’s what I will do.
OBAMA: That commission raised the retirement age, and also raised the payroll tax. So Sen. Clinton can’t have it both ways.
Taxing all earnings would indeed amount to a $1.3 trillion increase over the next 10 years alone, according to estimates by Cato Institute Social Security experts. A similar estimate comes from Citizens for Tax Justice, which figures the measure would bring in $124 billion per year.
Obama defended his proposal by saying it would fall only on the upper class: “Understand that only 6% of Americans make more than $97,000--so 6% is not the middle class--it’s the upper class.”
A: That’s not what I said. I said I will convene a meeting as president where we discuss all of the options that are available. I believe that cutting benefits is not the right answer; and that raising the retirement age is not the best option, particularly when we’ve got people who are still in manufacturing.
Q: But in May you said they would be on the table.
A: Well, I am going to be listening to any ideas that are presented, but I think that the best way to approach this is to adjust the cap on the payroll tax so that people like myself are paying a little bit more and the people who are in need are protected. That is the option that I will be pushing forward.
Q: But the other options would be on the table?
A: Well, I will listen to all arguments and the best options.
A: I think that lifting the cap is probably going to be the best option. Now we’ve got to have a process [like the one] back in 1983. We need another one. And I think I’ve said before everything should be on the table. My personal view is that lifting the cap is much preferable to the other options that are available. But what’s critical is to recognize that there is a potential problem: young people who don’t think Social Security is going to be there for them. We should be willing to do anything that will strengthen the system, to make sure that that we are being true to those who are already retired, as well as young people in the future. And we should reject things that will weaken the system, including privatization, which essentially is going to put people’s retirement at the whim of the stock market.
A: I think that it is an important option on the table, but the key, in addition to making sure that we don’t privatize, because Social Security is that floor beneath none of us can sink. And we’ve got to make sure that we preserve Social Security is to do the same thing that Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill were able to do back in 1983, which is come up with a bipartisan solution that puts Social Security on a firm footing for a long time.
Take the Administration’s attempt to privatize Social Security. The Administration argues that the stock market can provide individuals a better return on investment, and in the aggregate they are right; historically, the stock market outperforms Social Security’s cost of living adjustment. But individual investment decisions will always produce winners and losers. What would the Ownership Society do with the losers?
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t encourage individuals to pursue higher-risk, higher-return investment strategies. They should. It just means that they should do so with savings other than those put into Social Security.
Today, only about half of workers participate in an employer-based pension plan. Participation rates in other savings plans are substantially lower. Only about five percent of people contribute the maximum amount allowed each year to an IRA or 401(k).
Proponents recommend voting YES because:
Perhaps the worst example of wasteful spending is when we take the taxes people pay for Social Security and, instead of saving them, we spend them on other things. Even worse than spending Social Security on other things is we do not count it as debt when we talk about the deficit every year. So using the Social Security money is actually a way to hide even more wasteful spending without counting it as debt. This Amendment would change that.
Opponents recommend voting NO because:
This amendment has a fatal flaw. It leaves the door open for private Social Security accounts by providing participants with the option of "pre-funding of at least some portion of future benefits."
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