WASHINGTON – Wasting no time after unveiling his agenda for overhauling Social Security (search), President Bush was traveling to five states Thursday and Friday to promote the plan he outlined in his State of the Union (search) address.
Traveling to North Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, Arkansas and Florida, Bush is making the case that personal savings accounts will allow young workers to get bigger returns on their payroll taxes than if they handed over the money to the government, which invests it in federally-backed guarantees that because of the lower risk have a lower rate of return.
Bush said if Social Security is going to stay with the status quo, Congress will either have to run up taxes, cut programs or borrow money.
"Fewer workers are paying for more retirees," Bush told students at North Dakota State University. "When you think of the math there, we have a problem," he said, adding that not enough money is coming into the system to "pay for all the promises."
Inside his first stop at the Bison Sports Arena in Fargo, Bush was surrounded by a friendly crowd receptive to the president's ideas about allowing personal investment accounts. Included among the participants was Dr. Jeffrey Brown, an assistant professor of finance at the University of Illinois, who was to discuss the merits of personal accounts.
Outside, however, a number of protesters were not so friendly. A few dozen demonstrators protested the war in Iraq, but most held signs like "Keep the Security in Social Security" and "SSA — it's our money, not Wall Street's."
Bush said he expected Congress to skip the politics and "come up with solutions" to the impending insolvency of the system, which has been estimated to occur within the next 47 years.
"In other words, we're not going to play politics with the issue," he promised. "We're going to say, 'If you've got a good idea, come forth with your idea.' Because now is the time to put partisanship aside and focus on saving Social Security for young workers."
Accompanying the president during his trip to North Dakota were Sens. Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan and Rep. Earl Pomeroy. All three are Democrats in a state that Bush won handily in November.
In fact, Bush won all of the five states he is visiting during the two days. Each of those states has at least one Democratic senator the president hopes to win over to his side on the controversial issue.
Conrad, however, was not convinced after a long talk with the president about this issue during their flight to North Dakota.
"He's saying we've got to take more money out of Social Security to start private accounts and borrow the money," said Conrad. "I just think it's very unwise."
One in six North Dakotans receive Social Security benefits. Bush said in his State of the Union address that anyone age 55 and older will not be affected by his plan. The president's plan envisions continuing Social Security payments at the same rate for people who choose not to join the investment program. But Democrats argue that Bush omitted that those who do participate in the plan could see their guaranteed government benefits drop by 40 percent.
While it is sure to be a long, hard road before any changes to Social Security occur, Bush did make inroads with his speech, according to an overnight CNN/Gallup/USA Today survey that gauged responses from a single group of speech watchers before and after the address.
The group, which leaned Republican, initially had put Social Security as the fifth most important issue. After the speech, the issue rose to third place on a list of concerns. Of those surveyed, 74 percent said the president made a "convincing case" that the government needs to change Social Security in the near future. In addition, 77 percent of those surveyed said Bush would move the country in the right direction after the speech compared to 66 percent before the speech.
In Great Falls, Mont., Bush was trying to sway Sen. Max Baucus, ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee that has jurisdiction over Social Security. Before Bush arrived, Baucus held a town hall meeting in the city and said the majority of the several hundred people present opposed Bush's plan.
"They're against it because it undermines Social Security as they know it," Baucus said in a telephone interview. "They're afraid of the plan. They're afraid of private accounts."
Baucus said he had sided with Bush on trade legislation, the Medicare prescription drug benefit and tax cuts but was against the president's private retirement accounts. Baucus said he was concerned about "huge benefit cuts" for future retirees and the money the government probably would borrow to pay benefits during the transition to a new system — he estimated $2 trillion.
Still, Bush insisted at a packed arena in Great Falls: "This is doable. It's just going to take some political will."
A Little Faith Could Help Case Too
Bush began his day in Washington, D.C., at a national prayer breakfast with other politicians, where he made a few remarks that reinforced his support for faith-based initiatives — a cornerstone of the Bush presidency.
"Prayer has always been the great equalizer in American life," Bush said. "Through fellowship and prayer, we acknowledge that all power is temporary."
Bush noted that President Lincoln relied on prayer during the Civil War, another difficult era for the United States.
Whether the president's reform proposals will lead to another civil war is unlikely, but the partisan battles were quickly under way on Thursday after the president's State of the Union address.
Calling Social Security a "moral success of the 20th century," Bush said Wednesday night that to honor its great purpose in the 21st century, the 70-year-old program must be updated to allow private retirement accounts.
"One of America's most important institutions — a symbol of the trust between generations — is also in need of wise and effective reform. Social Security ... on its current path, is headed toward bankruptcy. And so we must join together to strengthen and save Social Security," Bush said.
"Fixing Social Security permanently will require an open, candid review of the options ... I will work with members of Congress to find the most effective combination of reforms," the president said.
Facing shouts of disagreement from Democratic members, Bush sounded the alarm that the Social Security crisis won't be in 2042 or 2052 — when the trust fund runs out of money — but just 13 years from now, when the surplus disappears.
"I recognize that 2018 and 2042 may seem like a long way off. But those dates are not so distant, as any parent will tell you. If you have a 5-year-old, you're already concerned about how you'll pay for college tuition 13 years down the road. If you've got children in their 20s, as some of us do, the idea of Social Security collapsing before they retire does not seem like a small matter. And it should not be a small matter to the United States Congress," he said, offering to hear any serious proposal that is suggested.
Bush's advisers have settled on a proposal for structuring the personal accounts to resemble the Thrift Savings Plan (search), a tax-deferred retirement investment plan for federal workers similar to a 401(k) plan. The idea is to minimize risk for people at the outset by offering as few as three to five diversified investment funds.
"Here is why personal accounts are a better deal. Your money will grow, over time, at a greater rate than anything the current system can deliver — and your account will provide money for retirement over and above the check you will receive from Social Security. In addition, you'll be able to pass along the money that accumulates in your personal account, if you wish, to your children or grandchildren. And best of all, the money in the account is yours, and the government can never take it away," Bush said.
Battle Royal Expected Over Personal Savings Accounts
In a surprising show of coordination, Democrats have gone on the offensive in a swift and sure way.
While some Democrats stood next to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial to emphasize that the father of Social Security would not want private accounts, a group of Democratic women senators held their own press conference Thursday to blast the president's plan.
"Women live longer, depend more on Social Security," said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who argued that private accounts put women at a disadvantage because of the wage gap that allows men to invest more than women.
"This is more of a shoving money to Wall Street than giving a helping hand to people who face retirement," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.
The battle over Social Security will clearly be fought against Democrats. But the lines are not straight left and right.
Forty-four senators — 43 Democrats and one independent signed a letter to the president delivered Thursday that calls on the White House to send a privatization-free "responsible Social Security proposal to Capitol Hill" that wouldn't "exacerbate the national debt."
But one Senate Democrat did not sign the letter. Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska said he's waiting to hear the president's proposal, particularly when they share a stage in Omaha on Friday, before making a decision on his position regarding Social Security.
On the GOP side, Rep. James McCrery, chairman of the House Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee, said he likes the idea of personal accounts, but would prefer the cost be paid out of general revenue funds rather than the Social Security trust. If the transition costs are paid with Social Security funds, the fight could be too difficult politically for Republicans to make.
"The AARP and the Democrats think if you divert some money from the trust fund," the existing program will be undermined, the congressman said, referring to the nation's largest senior citizens association. "That is true on its face. It does decrease the level of the trust fund."
Latinos, too, say they welcome the debate on how to ensure the long-term solvency of the program, particularly since 41 percent of "Hispanics receiving Social Security rely on it as their sole source of income, the highest of any ethnic group," said the National Council of La Raza (search), the largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy group.
"By the year 2030, the number of Hispanic elderly will triple to 11.2 percent of the nation's senior population. Equally important, Hispanics will make up 17.1 percent of all workers in 2030, making them an ever-growing proportion of those supporting the Social Security system. It is clear that Hispanics have a profound stake in this debate," Janet Murguia, NCLR President and CEO, said in a written statement.
Bush has already pitted young versus old in the debate. Seniors, many of whom are represented by AARP, voted for Bush over Sen. John Kerry in November, whereas voters under 30 supported the Massachusetts senator. But Bush's address appeals directly to the earning power of young workers, who as they get older become more conservative. That leaves considerable room for Republicans to make inroads among young voters.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.