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Student engages Obama at town hall meeting

August  19, 2011

An Augustana student spoke with the president of the United States about Social Security policy during a town hall meeting Wednesday.

Eric Palmer

Eric Palmer '13 raised his hand to ask a question at Barack Obama's bus tour stop in Alpha, Ill., never expecting the president would call on him. But when he did, Palmer was ready. He asked the president about how much the wealthiest Americans should pay into Social Security, and the two had a detailed discussion that left the president impressed with Palmer's command of the issue.

Palmer of Moline, Ill., was surprised Obama called on him because he was working as a volunteer in media relations at the event and was wearing an ID badge. "I wasn't sure I would be allowed to ask a question, but I raised my hand anyway," said Palmer, who is majoring in political science and economics. "I used one hand to cover my badge so he couldn't see it, and raised my other hand."

During their exchange, Obama referred to Augustana as a "great school," to which Palmer quickly agreed.

"It was exciting ... definitely something to remember," said Palmer, who hopes to work in a legislative position at the federal level one day. "I was able to go up to him afterwards, and he told me I was well-informed and that he thinks I'll go far."

Palmer added, "Maybe I'll ask him for a reference some day."

Their exchange caught the ear of a reporter for the New York Times, who used a quote from Palmer in the newspaper's coverage of the event: "I just want to let you know one thing," said the man, Eric Palmer, who stood in the back of the crowd here at the Country Corner Farm. "I am not disappointed in you like Michele Bachmann wants everyone to believe."

Here is a White House transcript of the conversation between Palmer and Obama:

Q Hello. My name is Eric Palmer (ph) and I go to Augustana College.

THE PRESIDENT: Great school.

Q Yes, it is. First of all, I just want to let you know of one thing: I am not disappointed in you like Michele Bachmann wants everyone to believe. (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. I appreciate that.

Q My question is about Social Security. I know that one of your ideas to fix the solvency of it is to re-evaluate the equation that determines the COLA, the cost-of-living adjustment. But as the law stands right now, we are only taxed on the first $107,000 that we make.

THE PRESIDENT: Right.

Q That means every dime that I make is taxed for Social Security.

THE PRESIDENT: Right.

Q I don't make $107,000. (Laughter.) But that means that --

THE PRESIDENT: Somebody said you will --

Q Someday, I hope.

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, you sound pretty smart. It sounds like you're going to do just great.

Q Thanks. But that means that people like Mitt Romney only pay into Social Security on the first one-tenth of 1 percent of what they make.

THE PRESIDENT: Right.

Q Can we look forward to you telling the Republicans that it's time that the wealthy pay their fair share? (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: Well, first -- this is a very well-informed young man here. (Laughter.) You're exactly right that the way the Social Security system works, there's what's called -- there's basically a cap on your Social Security, which there isn't, by the way, on Medicare. But Social Security, it only goes up to the first $107,000; and you're right, somebody who makes -- who has net assets of $250 million and are making maybe $5 million a year just on interest or capital gains or something, just a fraction of it's going to Social Security. I think there's a way for us to make adjustments on the Social Security tax that would be fairer than the system that we use right now.

I do think, in terms of how we calculate inflation, that's important as well. By the way, seniors -- a bunch of them were upset over the last couple years because some of -- because seniors didn't get a cost-of-living adjustment. I got a lot of letters -- "Mr. President, how come I didn't get a COLA this year for my Social Security?" And I answered this question at the previous town hall; I figured I'd clear something up now. The way the system works is you automatically get a cost-of-living adjustment based on the inflation rate. The President doesn't make that decision; it's based on a formula.

And when the economy was really in the drink in 2009 and 2010, there was basically no inflation -- prices were actually going down. That's why seniors did not get the cost-of-living adjustment. That doesn't mean that they weren't still having a hard time because food prices or gas prices or what have you might have been going up, or the cost of medicine. So as a consequence, we actually proposed -- and I'm sure Danny was one of the co-sponsors of this -- legislation that would have given an extra $250 to seniors just to help make ends meet. We couldn't get Republican support for it. But seniors who are still upset about not getting your COLA -- or if they're not here, but when you go back and you're talking to your grandma and they're still mad at me about it, I just want you guys to set the record straight, okay?