WASHINGTON (Talon News) — President Bush announced Wednesday that he would take his case for Social Security reform directly to the American people following his State of the Union address on February 2. At a press conference, the president reiterated his intention to save the retirement system from its eventual bankruptcy if changes aren’t made in the short term.

In an opening statement, Bush said that in asking the Congress to act, he would be open to a vigorous discussion but that any solution “must confront the problem fully and directly by making the system permanently solvent and providing the option of personal accounts.”

He pressed his case to the press corps, pointing out that it is a matter of math that the system will go “into the red” in 13 years, paying out more in benefits that it collects beginning in 2018. Without changes, the Social Security trust fund will be exhausted in 2042.

Despite the political difficulties, Bush adamantly said, “Now is the time to act.”

He pointed out that for several decades Social Security was the ‘third rail’ of American politics. But he also pointed out that his reelection gave him a mandate to deal with the issue since it was a central part of his campaign.

The president acknowledged opposition from Democrats and resistance within his own party, but he pronounced himself ready to lead the Congress and take the case to the American people. He noted that his predecessor, Democrat Bill Clinton, made a similar tour of the United States talking about saving Social Security.

Bush expressed an understanding of the power of those wanting to derail a Social Security agenda by “scaring people.” He recognized that it has been a tactic employed by those who believe the status quo is acceptable.

The president was clear about reassuring seniors at or near retirement age that they would see no changes in their benefits. He promised that he would remind today’s seniors, “we have a duty to act on behalf of their children and grandchildren.”

While he welcomed a broad discussion of options for reform, he flatly ruled out an increase in the payroll tax. He also rejected a rollback of the historic income tax cuts achieved during his first term.

Opponents of reform cite estimates of $1 to $2 trillion in transition costs to include personal savings accounts. The president refused to comment on how those costs would be covered, but indicated that the unfunded liability is over $10 trillion and grows larger with inactivity.

In speaking about personal accounts he stressed they are part of the “ownership society” that he is promoting. People will be able to own and manage their assets and pass earnings to beneficiaries.

The president met with members of the Senate on Tuesday to open discussions and followed that up with a similar conference Wednesday with House members. He pledged to work with Republicans as well as Democrats to find the solution.

Senate Democrats are fiercely opposed to Social Security reform as well as the balance of the Bush agenda. Republicans had been hoping that the obstructionist tactics in the Senate would have been diminished with the ouster in November of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD). But his successor, Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), presides over what many see as a smaller and more radicalized caucus.

On Monday, when Reid and other leaders of the Democratic minority laid out their agenda, they painted a bleak picture of the U.S. economy. Comparisons to the Great Depression were a theme of the Kerry campaign, despite significant evidence to the contrary. Last weekend, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) said that the U.S. economy was on the “brink of collapse.” But both claim that Social Security is “rock solid.”

Talon News asked President Bush how he would deal with those leaders who hold such disparate views from his own. His simple answer indicated an approach that he attributed to President Clinton, but was done most effectively by Ronald Reagan. The 40th president achieved significant legislative victories by appealing directly to the citizenry.

Moreover, the president’s strategy will bypass the Washington media that he once accused of “filtering” his message. Bush said that he would travel to four or five states on his tour and will probably grant interviews to regional news organizations as he has in the past.

He also rejected the pessimism of Senate Democrats when he told Talon News, “I think most people are optimistic about the economy next year. It’s very important that we continue to put pro-growth policies in place.”

Bush continued, “In terms of whether the economy is growing or not, the jobs are increasing, the forecast looks strong. Obviously, there are some things we need to do to make sure that America is a good place to continue to risk capital and invest. That’s why I’m urging the Congress to pass legal reform.”

He reiterated that his agenda included legal reform, asbestos reform, class-action reform, and medical liability reform. Bush pointed out that the country was still without an energy bill, the last attempt dying in the Senate last year after Democrats filibustered the legislation.

He explained his philosophy in tackling difficult issues, saying, “You know, we’re all here to serve the people. And as I say, I’m going to go out and explain why I think it’s important for us to address big issues, like Social Security reform; and take my case to the people and let them hear the rationale about why even address big issues, much less the reason why I think, for example, in Social Security there is an issue.”

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