A few days before the debate, I spent a day with Obama in Iowa, and the most striking thing to me about the Senator's performances was the scrupulous honesty of his answers, his insistence on delivering bad news when necessary. A woman asked if he believed that stay-at-home moms should be eligible for Social Security. There is a way most politicians answer such questions: a moving tribute to the virtues of child-rearing, then on to the next question without ever making the commitment. Obama did the moving tribute — with a joke about his ineptitude as a parent — but then he told the woman no. "We can't extend those benefits without huge financial implications," he said.
This is not a particularly progressive approach, nor a bold one. It may not be possible to make the change the woman was asking for (and not having been there, I can't know her exact question), but it is and should be possible to propose reforming Social Security so that women who take a few years out of the paid workforce when their children are young are not excessively penalized for it. Indeed, Al Gore proposed doing just that in 2000:
As part of his plan to fix the Social Security system, presidential contender Al Gore has proposed increasing Social Security benefits for women who take time off work to raise children. His proposal would give women who stay home with their kids an average of $600 more a month in Social Security benefits at retirement. As election-year promises go, this one is as American as apple pie.
Gore says that the current Social Security system has a "motherhood penalty." Under current law, a worker's Social Security benefit (the so-called "primary insurance amount") is based on his or her average earnings over 35 years. Because women often take time out of the work force to raise their children, however, the typical woman has only 27 years with earnings (and, consequently, 8 years with no earnings). As a result, women get smaller Social Security checks than men.
Gore sees this as "unfair", and his solution is to give women credit for up to five extra years of earnings if they stay home and raise kids. In effect, moms would compute their average earnings on just 30 years of earnings, down from the usual 35. With fewer years with zero earnings in the average, the typical mom should see her Social Security check jump by about $600 a month.
I don't think Gore was lying to the American people or shirking a responsibility to give them bad news when he proposed this, and he certainly wasn't dodging hard questions. What he had was a great idea and today's Democratic presidential candidates (and that includes Hillary Clinton) could do worse -- and, in fact, are doing worse -- than following his lead.