NJ Let me follow up once more there and then take you in a different direction. Another area that a lot of Republicans have been talking about this year is the idea that President Bush attempted [to carve] out individual investment accounts from Social Security. The other day, Sharron Angle, who is one of the proponents of that idea, turned to Harry Reid, and by extension Democrats, in the debate and said that they were not facing the full, long-term challenge of Social Security, and that when it came to Social Security, Reid had to “man up.” That was the phrase that she used, that Democrats had to “man up” on this. What was your reaction when you heard that, the idea that Democrats are not facing, are not being honest with the country about the risk to Social Security, and is there any common ground you can find around an agenda that included diverting part of the payroll tax into private accounts?
OBAMA Well, I think we have to separate out those two questions. I think the Democrats, including me, repeatedly during the course of the campaign have said that it’s important for us to make sure that Social Security is here not just for this generation but for generations to come. That is the most important social program we have. It’s a bedrock of our belief that if people have played by the rules and worked hard, then at the end of their working lives they have some security, some floor beneath which they can’t go. And my hope is, is that the bipartisan deficit commission that I appointed will address Social Security in the context of the broader range of fiscal issues. In fact, Social Security is probably the easiest of the entitlement problems to solve. Medicare, which is the big driver of long-term deficits, is something that we can solve only by changing how we spend our health care dollars generally. That’s part of why health care reform was so important, because if we didn’t get started on that now, by the time we were really in trouble on Medicare, it’d be way too late. Now, let’s go back to the point you made about—
NJ “Man up.”
OBAMA —Sharron Angle. There’s no evidence that carving out a portion of Social Security revenues and putting them in private accounts helps the solvency of Social Security. In fact, the reason that when President Bush proposed it, it died a fairly rapid death, is the recognition at least among honest fiscal conservatives that given the way Social Security is structured, you’d actually have to borrow a trillion dollars to make up for the money that was siphoned into the private accounts, and this would weaken the solvency of Social Security. Moreover, it’s hard to imagine that anybody who is paying attention over the last couple years would feel real confident that putting part of their Social Security into Wall Street accounts, after they’ve been watching what happened to their 401(k)s, would somehow be comforted by that. So I think that that approach is a nonstarter. I do think that you could find a sensible agreement between Republicans and Democrats about a way to strengthen Social Security, much as Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill were able to arrive at a sensible solution that didn’t require an overhaul of Social Security’s basic structure. I think that same approach is available to us today.
NJ In 1995, shortly after the midterm debacle for the Democrats, President Clinton began a series of course corrections, starting in the State of the Union when he said, “The era of Big Government is over.” You talk about this election season as having exposed voter unrest, and the Democratic lesson, I think you said, is to have humility about how far you can go. What course corrections can you see yourself making, given that’s the message, and how would you express it? How would it affect your rhetoric and your policies?
OBAMA Look. My first two years in office were essentially characterized by having to deal with emergencies. We had the financial crisis that led to a broader economic crisis, that led to the potential collapse of the auto industry in America, that led to a fiscal crisis, and we had to respond rapidly on each of these fronts. It was a lot for the public to digest. It was also a lot for me to be able to communicate effectively to the public in any coherent way. If you think about it, the amount of work that should have gone into communicating just what was in the stimulus might have taken six months. We didn’t have time. Because right away we had to figure out, how do we apply a stress test to the banking system that stabilizes it, and what are we going to do about autos; and now that the economy is stable and growing–although still much weaker than we want–I think it’s possible for us to be more deliberate, to spend more time building consensus. I’ll take an example like infrastructure, where historically you’ve had a strong bipartisan consensus around roads, bridges, runways, railways, and a reauthorization is going to be coming up. For us to be able to say to the Republicans, "Even in a context of fiscal restraint we can’t let our core infrastructure deteriorate. What’s the best way to do it? Are there ways that we can redesign how we fund infrastructure so that taxpayers are getting better bang for the buck? Are there ways that we can leverage private capital to come in on top of public dollars for investments not only in traditional infrastructure but also new infrastructure like a state-of-the-art air traffic control system, for example, that would cut down delays and increase productivity for people across the country?" That is the kind of conversation that may take a little more time to build that consensus, but I think is possible. On education, the truth of the matter is that we have done probably more in the last two years to push off the old dogmas about what reform looks like, and, under Arne Duncan’s leadership, we’ve been willing to take on some Democratic sacred cows and say, "We’ve just got to get in there and fix the schools." Money matters, but reform matters, making sure we get the best teachers in the classroom matters. So now, as it becomes time for us to renew what has been No Child Left Behind, hopefully we can find some common ground. Those are the kinds of opportunities I’m going to be looking for, areas where I think the American people broadly recognize we can do better than we’re doing right now. But hopefully, we will have more time because we’re not going to be putting out fires day in and day out.