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What's On the Table For Obama and Social Security?

Obama took his Social Security pitch on the road to Iowa this week. (AP).

Barack Obama has spent the past few days calling out Hillary Clinton on Social Security. What has gotten much less attention is that Obama has changed his position on what to do about the government retirement system's financial problems.

When Obama appeared on ABC's "This Week" last May, he told ABC's George Stephanopoulos, "Everything should be on the table" as options for assuring the program's long-term solvency.

"Raising the retirement age?" Stephanopoulos asked.

"Everything should be on the table," Obama replied.

"Raising payroll taxes?" Stephanopoulos asked.

"Everything should be on the table," Obama said. "I think we should approach it the same way Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan did back in 1983. They came together. I don't want to lay out my preferences beforehand, but what I know is that Social Security is solvable. It is not as difficult a problem as we're going to have with Medicaid or Medicare."

The lone exception to his "everything is on the table" policy was any form of privatization. Obama said he would not consider the kind of proposal advanced unsuccessfully by President Bush, which would have allowed younger workers to divert some of their payroll taxes to personal or private savings accounts.

In citing the Reagan-O'Neill partnership, Obama appeared to be anxious to preserve his options, should he become president. At the same time, he was signaling that he believed a solution to the problem would require some measure of sacrifice by all parties and a blending of higher taxes and reduced benefits to assure the system's solvency.

Today he is in a different place. His new ad, which began airing in Iowa this week, cites three principles he would follow to save Social Security. One is to restate his opposition to any form of privatization. Second, he said he now would protect benefits from any proposed cuts. Third, he said, is to end the Social Security tax exemption for wealthy Americans.

In a matter of months, Obama has moved from being open to a solution that might include raising the retirement age or indexing benefits to prices rather than wages -- as Republican Fred Thompson has recommended -- to one of making the protection of benefits one of his three core principles for dealing with Social Security.

Protecting Social Security benefits represents standard and traditional policy for Democratic candidates at all levels and in that sense is not a surprising position for someone seeking the party's presidential nomination.

But it may hold particular meaning in Iowa, where older voters play an outsized role in the presidential caucuses. In 2004, for example, 68 percent of Democratic caucus-goers were over age 45, according to exit polls.

Seen in that light, Obama's decision to wall off benefits might be interpreted as a political calculation aimed at shoring up support in a state critical to his presidential aspirations and among the demographic group where he has been weak. Obama's campaign is silent on the political ramifications of his Social Security policy.

Obama's campaign advisers decline to call his current stance on benefits a change in positions. "Barack Obama does not want to cut benefits or raise the retirement age," spokesman Bill Burton said Wednesday. "He thinks the best way to address the issue of solvency is to raise the cap."

Does that contradict what Obama said last spring, when he insisted that everything should be on the table? Here is Burton's response to that exact question: "As opposed to others in the race he has been candid about the problem and in recent days has made himself even more clear in how he would address it."

By that Burton meant Clinton. On Saturday in Iowa, Obama criticized Clinton for not being forthcoming about her plans for dealing with Social Security. "I think that on issues as fundamental as how to protect Social Security, a candidate for President owes it to the American people to tell us where they stand," he said, according to the campaign. "Because you're not ready to lead if you can't tell us where you're going."

Clinton has taken a variety of positions on Social Security. She initially ruled out benefit cuts in what was calculated to show her differences with Obama's earlier position. Later she embraced the Reagan-O'Neill model of establishing a bipartisan commission and said she would not talk about specific ideas as a candidate. Then in an off-stage conversation with an Iowa voter she signaled she is open to raising the cap on payroll taxes, while still maintaining her public posture of not talking specifics.

Obama is willing to talk about those specifics -- but only up to a point. John Edwards, for example, has proposed keeping the current cap at $97,500, excluding wages between that and $200,000 and then applying the payroll tax to wages above that level. Others say simply raising the cap is the best approach. Obama will not, according to a spokesman, say which of several possible approaches he favors although in Iowa on Saturday he seemed to support the latter.

Having challenged Clinton on Social Security, Obama now owes it to voters to explain his own evolution on the issue of benefit cuts this year -- and to provide a clearer sense of just how amenable he would be as president to endorsing a bipartisan solution that ultimately would entail dealing with both benefits and with taxes. He needs to say what is now on the table and what isn't.

--Dan Balz

By Washington Post editors  |  October 30, 2007; 1:05 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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