Barack Obama photo

Remarks in Gresham, Oregon

May 18, 2008

Americans who work hard their entire lives have earned the right to retire with dignity and security. That's the promise that each of us wants to be realized within our own families, and it's a promise that we must keep for all American families.

For generations, Washington worked to protect that promise for working people. That's the promise that my grandparents knew, even though they came of age in the Depression. My grandfather would go on to serve in Patton's Army, and my grandmother worked on a bomber assembly line. When they set out west from Kansas to build their lives after the War, they did so with the confidence that Washington would help them reach a secure retirement. That was the promise that FDR made, and it was a promise that Washington kept for decades while folks like my grandparents moved through the ups and downs of life in America's middle class.

But today, Washington is not working to preserve this fundamental part of the American Dream.A secure retirement is no longer a guarantee for the middle class. It's harder to save and harder to retire. Pensions are getting crunched. The promise of social security may grow harder to keep. That's why I will fight every day to extend the promise of a retirement that is dignified and secure when I am President of the United States.

It starts with protecting Social Security today, tomorrow, and forever. For millions of Americans, Social Security is the difference between a comfortable retirement and the risk of poverty. We have an obligation to secure the future of one of the most successful programs in our history. That starts with talking straight to the American people about the challenges that lie ahead.

Social Security is strong, but as more baby boomers retire, the long-term cash-flow needs to be addressed. We have to make sure Social Security is there for future generations.

Now we already know what the Republicans will be running on. John McCain has already said that he supports private accounts for Social Security - in his words, "along the lines that President Bush proposed." Let me be clear: privatizing Social Security was a bad idea when George W. Bush proposed it. It's a bad idea today. It would cost a trillion dollars to implement at the front end, and would put the retirement plans of millions of Americans at risk on a volatile Wall Street. That's why I stood up against this plan in the Senate, and that's why I won't stand for it as President.

But Senator McCain's campaign went even further a few weeks ago, suggesting that the best answer to the growing pressures on Social Security might be to cut cost-of-living adjustments or to raise the retirement age. I think there is another option that is fairer to working men and women. We have to protect Social Security for future generations without pushing the burden on to seniors who have earned the right to retire in dignity.

Here's my plan. Right now, the Social Security payroll tax only applies to the first $102,000 a worker makes. I think the best way forward is to adjust the cap on the payroll tax so that people like me pay a little bit more and people in need are protected. That way we can extend the promise of Social Security without shifting the burden on to seniors. And we should include what's called a "donut hole" to make sure that this change doesn't ensnare any middle class Americans.

But Social Security is not enough. More and more seniors are struggling with the cost of everything from gas to groceries, and we know that rising costs are hardest for folks on fixed incomes. That's why I'll make retirement more secure by eliminating income taxes for any retiree making less than $50,000 per year. This would completely eliminate income taxes for 7 million seniors, providing a savings of $1,400 per person each year.

And it's time to end the outrage of CEOs cashing out while workers lose their pensions. Right now, bankruptcy laws are more focused on protecting banks than protecting pensions. That's not fair. That's not the America that I believe in. It's time to stop cutting back the safety net for working people while we protect golden parachutes for the well-off. If you work hard and play by the rules, then you've earned your pension. If a company goes bankrupt, then workers need to be our top priority - not an afterthought.

I fought against a bankruptcy bill in the Senate that did more to protect credit card companies and banks than help working people. And as President, I'll limit circumstances when retirement benefits can be cut, and increase the wages and benefits that workers can claim in bankruptcy court. We'll require companies to disclose their pension fund investments. We'll put an end to the outrage of executives getting bonuses while workers watch pensions disappear. And we'll make sure that no American goes bankrupt just because they get sick.

Finally, we're not going to help folks reach retirement unless we encourage savings. But today, personal savings is at an all-time low as Americans are dealing with higher costs and a credit crunch. Meanwhile, 75 million working Americans don't have employer-based retirement plans.

That's why I've proposed automatic workplace pensions. There will be no red tape or complicated forms - employers will provide a direct deposit of a small percentage of each paycheck into your account. You can add to it, or you can opt out at any time. And employers will have an easy opportunity to match employee savings. If you switch jobs, your savings will roll over into your new employer's system. If you become self-employed, you will control your account. Studies show that about 80 percent of Americans will enroll if given the option to pursue my plan. This will put a secure retirement within reach for millions of working families.

Since the New Deal, we've had that basic understanding in America. If you work hard and pay into the system, you've earned the right to a secure retirement. That's the promise that was kept for my grandparents and Michelle's parents, and for so many families here in Oregon and across the country. But in George Bush and John McCain's Washington, the message to the middle class is: "you're on your own."

Well I'm running for because we must be the country where we say that we're all in this together. We can do this. We can come together to keep America's promise - not just for this generation of seniors, but for our children and our grandchildren. That's a principle worth fighting for. And with your help, that's what I will do every day when I am President of the United States of America.

Barack Obama, Remarks in Gresham, Oregon Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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