Barack Obama’s Statements on Social Security

The following are key statements made by Barack Obama as president and prior to his presidency about Social Security.

Speech to the AARP Convention on the COLA and the retirement age

September 6, 2008
“But his [McCain’s] campaign has gone even further, suggesting that the best answer to the growing pressures on Social Security might be to cut cost-of-living adjustments or raise the retirement age. I will not do either.”
Key clip is at 8:40 to 9:50

Presidential Campaign Video/Organizing for America, Blueprint for Change: Social Security

October 16, 2008
“The best way forward is to first look to adjust the cap on the payroll tax. … Ninety-seven percent of Americans will see absolutely no change in their taxes under my proposal. … What it does allow us to do is extend the life of Social Security without cutting benefits or raising the retirement age.”

Meet the Press interview on not cutting benefits and uncapping the payroll tax

November 11, 2007
“And when you look at how we should approach Social Security, I believe that cutting retire—cutting benefits is not the right answer.  I meet too many seniors all across the country who are struggling with the limited Social Security benefits that they have.  That raising the retirement age is not the best option, particularly when we’ve got people who are still in manufacturing.”

“Well, when I—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.” 

Op-ed in Quad City Times, Iowa, opposing benefit cuts and raising the retirement age

September 21, 2007
“Second, I do not want to cut benefits or raise the retirement age. I believe there are a number of ways we can make Social Security solvent that do not involve placing these added burdens on our seniors. One possible option, for example, is to raise the cap on the amount of income subject to the Social Security tax. If we kept the payroll tax rate exactly the same but applied it to all earnings and not just the first $97,500, we could virtually eliminate the entire Social Security shortfall.”

State of the Union Speech 2010

January 27, 2010
“Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years.  (Applause.)  Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will not be affected.”

“Now, even after paying for what we spent on my watch, we’ll still face the massive deficit we had when I took office.  More importantly, the cost of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will continue to skyrocket.

State of the Union Speech 2009

February 24, 2009
“To preserve our long-term fiscal health, we must also address the growing costs in Medicare and Social Security.  Comprehensive health care reform is the best way to strengthen Medicare for years to come.  And we must also begin a conversation on how to do the same for Social Security, while creating tax-free universal savings accounts for all Americans.”

MTV appearance featuring question on the solvency of Social Security, payroll tax and “all options on the table”

October 14, 2010
The Congressional Budget Office projects that Social Security could go into the red as early as 2018. And it seems to me there are only three options if we want to fix it: raise the retirement age, raise payroll taxes or reduce benefits. I know in the past you’ve said that all options are on the table, but do you have a limit for what would be acceptable changes for each of those three things?:

Well, first of all, let me just say something about these projections. According to the Congressional Budget Office, what’ll happen is around 2018, we’ll start taking in less money than we’re sending out. So right now Social Security generally runs a surplus; that surplus will start getting drained around 2018.

Now, that doesn’t mean that Social Security is going bankrupt. It doesn’t mean that Social Security is going away. What it does mean is if we don’t do anything about it, right around the time — you guys are a little young for you to retire — but let’s say when I’m retired. (Laughter.) What’s going to end up happening is, is that if you expected a dollar of benefits, you’ll only get about 75 cents, so people won’t get the full bargain that they thought they were getting when they paid into Social Security.

That’s why we’ve got to strengthen it. And I have said that all options are on the table. I think we’ve got to look at how we preserve it for the next generation. I do think that the best way to do it would be to look at the fact that right now you only pay Social Security taxes up to about $106,000, and after that, you don’t pay any Social Security tax. So that means Warren Buffett, who makes more than $100,000 a year, the vast bulk of his income, he doesn’t pay Social Security taxes on it. That could be modified or changed in a way that would help extend the solvency of Social Security.

But this is an area where — I’m sorry, what was the young lady from Austin — this is where Cynthia’s point about bipartisanship is so important. I set up a bipartisan fiscal commission that is made up of Republicans and Democrats to sit and meet over the last several months to start looking at how we generally start reducing our debt and our deficit so we’re not leaving it to the next generation. They’re supposed to report back to me after the election because we specifically designed it so they wouldn’t get caught up with silly season and would be able to just focus on what makes sense.

Other statements on uncapping the payroll tax

September 22, 2007 — “If we kept the payroll tax rate exactly the same but applied it to all earnings and not just the first $97,000,” Obama wrote this week in an Iowa newspaper, “we could eliminate the entire Social Security shortfall.”

September 6, 2007 — “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.”

April 27, 2008 — “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.”- Fox News Interview 2007

April 16, 2008 — “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.
“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”- Philadelphia Primary Debate

Social Security is not in crisis

August 18, 2010 — The president acknowledged at a small town hall gathering in Columbus, Ohio, Wednesday that the pension fund “has to be tweaked because the population is getting older” but said Republicans’ plans to drastically overhaul the program are wrong. 
“Social Security is not in crisis,” Obama said. “We’re going to have to make some modest adjustments in order to strengthen it.” 

October 30, 2007 — “Social Security is not in crisis; it is a fundamentally sound system, but it does have a problem, long-term. We’ve got 78 million baby boomers, who are going to be retiring over the next couple of decades. That means more retirees, fewer workers to support those retirees. We are going to have to do something about it. The best idea is to lift the cap on the payroll tax, potentially exempting middle-class folks, but making sure that the wealthy are paying more of their fair share, a little bit more.”

2008 campaign website statement — “Obama and Biden are committed to ensuring Social Security is solvent and viable for the American people, now and in the future. Obama and Biden will be honest with the American people about the long-term solvency of Social Security and the ways we can address the shortfall. Obama and Biden will protect Social Security benefits for current and future beneficiaries alike. And they do not believe it is necessary or fair to hardworking seniors to raise the retirement age. Obama and Biden are strongly opposed to privatizing Social Security. As part of a bipartisan plan that would be phased in over many years, they will ask those making over $250,000 to contribute a bit more to Social Security to keep it sound.

“Obama does not support uncapping the full payroll tax of 12.4 percent rate. Instead, he and Joe Biden are considering plans that would ask those making over $250,000 to pay in the range of 2 to 4 percent more in total (combined employer and employee).”

National Press Club speech

April 26, 2005 — “Since Social Security was first signed into law almost seventy years ago, at a time when FDR’s opponents were calling it a hoax that would never work and some likened it to communism, there has been movement after movement to get rid of the program for purely ideological reasons. Because some still believe that we can’t solve the problems we face as one American community; they think this country works better when we’re left to face fate by ourselves.

“I understand this view. There’s something bracing about the Social Darwinist idea, the idea that there isn’t a problem that the unfettered free market can’t solve. It requires no sacrifice on the part of those of us who have won life’s lottery…and doesn’t consider who our parents were, or the education we received, or the right breaks that came at the right time.

“But I couldn’t disagree more. If we privatize Social Security, what will we tell retirees whose investments in the stock market went badly? We’re sorry? Keep working? You’re on your own?

“When people’s expected benefits get cut and they have to choose between their groceries and their prescriptions, what will we say then? That’s not our problem?

“When our debt climbs so high that our children face sky-high taxes just as they’re starting their first job, what will we tell them? Deal with it yourselves?

“This isn’t how America works. This isn’t how we saved millions of seniors from a life of poverty seventy years ago. This isn’t how we sent a greatest generation of veterans to college so they could build the greatest middle-class in history. And this isn’t how we should face the challenges of this new century either.”