Q: But what would you say to a guy like my brother, a small-business owner who took out a second mortgage many years back, took a big risk. Four kids, nobody was going to be there to bail him out if he failed. Over the years he's built a successful business with 300 employees. But he feels now that he's being singled out as one of "the most fortunate among us," almost in a negative way. He feels he should be rewarded rather than taxed more.
A: What I would say to him, first of all, is that I've cut taxes on small businesses 17 times since I've been in office.
Q: But he says that he doesn't really feel that.
A: Well, people don't generally feel tax cuts. They feel tax hikes. But the tax burden on small businesses is lower now than it was when I came into office. It is true that if he's a successful CEO of a company with 300 employees, earning a really good salary, the tax burden on those folks — I'm one of them, by the way — is actually lower than probably at any time in 50 years. And all I've said with respect to that $250,000-to-$1 million group is, we can afford to go back to the Clinton tax rates if we want to close the deficit, which ultimately will be good for his business.
He may be concerned about making sure that our infrastructure is tip-top. That our broadband connections are sound. That our airlines are operating effectively. All those things are part of what allows him to be successful. So we've got to pay for it. And those of us who have done well can afford to do a little bit more, and those who have done really, really well, like Warren Buffett, should be able to do more. I think it's important to remember that even for folks who don't feel rich, if you're making over $250,000 a year, there's 98 percent of the country who are making less than you.
Q: Your other wish was lower gas prices. Fuel is America's top export now. If we have the supply, why are prices still so high?
A: The biggest reason is that China in 2010 bought [more than] 10 million cars. India is suddenly using a lot more oil. All these emerging countries, as their standards of living rise, suddenly want to use more oil. U.S. oil production is higher than it's been in eight years. [But] you have a world oil market, and even as we're producing more, demand is going up faster than supply. So we can't just drill our way out of the problem.
Q: Is the Keystone XL pipeline more about jobs than oil?
A: Canada has what are called tar sands. It's an expensive way of extracting oil, but they're producing a lot of it now. And they want to build a pipeline to pump from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, where they can then export that oil all around the world. It's not going to make a dent in gas prices here in the United States. Ultimately, the way we free ourselves from this annual spike in gas prices is to diversify our energy to solar, wind and biofuels. I want to produce more oil. We probably have a 100-year supply of natural gas. Most importantly, I want to continue to be more efficient in how we use energy. So, for example, me doubling fuel-efficiency standards on cars ultimately will save the average consumer $8,000 at the pump [over time] when it takes full effect a decade from now, because everybody's going to be getting 55 mpg on their car. And that savings is equal to what would be pumped through the Keystone pipeline for 45 years.
A: Social Security is not in an immediate crisis. It's not the driver of our deficits, the way Medicare and our health care programs are. We can easily tweak the Social Security program while protecting current beneficiaries, ensuring that it's there for future generations. There are ways that involve, for example, slightly raising the [payroll] cap. I think it's a pretty sensible thing to do. What I've said to [Republicans] is, "I am prepared to sit down with you, the way Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill sat down together. And make very modest adjustments that extend the life of Social Security for 75 years." We can do that again. But it's going to require us not playing politics with Social Security. Understanding that millions of Americans have been lifted out of poverty because of Social Security. It is the linchpin of our social safety net. We can't privatize it. We don't want it to be subject to the winds in the stock market. We want it there for people over the long run.
Q: We have a story in this issue about reinvention, which pushes readers to do the thing they're scared to do. What would you do?
A: There's all kinds of things I might do if I wasn't president. Starting with just going out that gate and taking a walk! I think that what I'd love to do, and I may very well do, after I get out of office, is to learn a foreign language. Malia and Sasha are getting pretty good at Spanish, and I always regret the fact that I didn't do it.
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