Where Do the Candidates Stand on Social Security? Social Security's financial problems are fodder for the 2008 presidential candidates. Sen. Barack Obama is trying to gain traction with a proposal to fix the retirement system and he's criticizing Hillary Clinton for not offering any specific solutions.
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Where Do the Candidates Stand on Social Security?

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Where Do the Candidates Stand on Social Security?

Where Do the Candidates Stand on Social Security?

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

There was pressure from all sides on New York Senator Hillary Clinton as her fellow candidates took to challenging the frontrunner last night. In the Democratic presidential debate in Philadelphia, Senator Clinton answered for her views on Iraq, Iran, free trade, even the issue of driver's licenses for illegal aliens. Another hot topic was social security, which is emerging as an issue among both Democrats and Republicans.

NPR's John Ydstie has more.

JOHN YDSTIE: Prior to last night's debate, Barack Obama had complained that Hillary Clinton was not offering specific solutions for fixing social security's financial problems. Obama, campaigning in Iowa over the weekend, said that on an issue as fundamental as social security, quote, "a candidate for president owes it to the American people to tell us where they stand." And Obama launched a new ad that included this dig at Clinton.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): I don't want to just put my finger out to the wind and see what the polls say. I want to bring the country together to solve a problem.

YDSTIE: Obama has offered a specific proposal. He says he would tax the wealthy to close social security's long-term funding gap. Currently, incomes over $97,500 a year are not subject to social security payroll taxes. Obama says he would impose the tax on all incomes over $200,000 - a move that could significantly improve social security's financial picture.

A number of other Democratic presidential hopefuls support this option. Clinton, however, has refused to be pinned down in public. But recently, an AP reporter overheard Clinton tell an Iowa voter in a private conversation that she would consider taxing incomes over $200,000 to fix social security.

Last night, moderator Tim Russert confronted Clinton on the subject.

(Soundbite of political debate)

Mr. TIM RUSSERT (Moderator, Democratic Presidential Debate): Why do you have one public position and one private position?

Senator HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (Democrat, New York: Presidential Candidate): Well, Tim, I don't. I have said consistently that my plan for social security is fiscal responsibility first, then to deal with any long-term challenges, which I agree are ones that we're going to have to address. We would have a bipartisan commission.

YDSTIE: Clinton said the first step is a return to balance budgets and surpluses, so the country has the resources to fix social security the right way. Getting into a campaign argument now over raising taxes or cutting benefits, she said, would be falling into a Republican trap.

Sen. CLINTON: I am not going to be repeating Republican talking points. So when somebody asks me, would something like this be considered? Well, anything could be considered when we get to a bipartisan commission. But personally, I am not going to be advocating any specific fix until I am seriously approaching fiscal responsibility.

YDSTIE: Obama was not satisfied. He warned that 78 million baby boomers are preparing to retire and there are fewer workers to support them.

(Soundbite of political debate)

Sen. OBAMA: It is common sense that we are going to have to do something about it. That is not a Republican talking point. Now, it is important, if we are going to lead this country, to be clear to the American people about what our intentions are.

YDSTIE: Clinton and Obama did agree on one thing last night - that social security's financial situation is a problem, not a crisis. There's a different view among Republicans running for the White House.

Here's Fred Thompson during a recent candidate debate in Florida.

(Soundbite of political debate)

Mr. FRED THOMPSON (Former Senator; Republican Presidential Candidate): It is a difficult thing politically. But the fact of the matter is we're bankrupt in the next generation. We're spending the money of our grandkids and those yet to be born. They don't have a seat at the table. Can you imagine something that's unsustainable and threatens our economy not being discussed more on the campaign trail?

YDSTIE: Most of the other Republican candidates have played it safe, advocating private accounts for social security, always popular with their party's constituency.

But Thompson says he's got some ideas he thinks could avoid generational warfare and big tax hikes or benefit cuts in the future.

Mr. THOMPSON: If we do some responsible things now, we don't have to do that. And the indexing of benefits in the future from wages to prices is one way to do that.

YDSTIE: But while it sounds innocuous, calculating benefits for future retirees based on the rise in prices instead of wages is a big change. Despite Thompson's suggestion, price indexing would lead to a significant cut in promised benefits for future retirees. On the other hand, it's clear price indexing would also go a long way toward fixing social security's problems. In any case, Thompson's prescription takes a road largely untraveled in a party that has often suffered politically when raising social security as an issue.

John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington.

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