WASHINGTON – Fresh from a five-state tour promoting his plan to add private accounts to Social Security (search), President Bush pledged on Saturday to go beyond that proposal and push for an overhaul to make the retirement system permanently solvent.
Bush also told his weekly radio audience that the budget he submits to Congress on Monday will hold the growth of discretionary spending below the projected 2.3 percent rate of inflation.
Discretionary programs are those Congress must approve each year; the White House estimates their cost at $823 billion this year.
"I welcome the bipartisan calls to control the spending appetite of the federal government," Bush said.
Bush spent the two days after his State of the Union (search) address in rallies around the country to press Congress to back his idea for letting younger workers put up to one-third of Social Security tax contributions into accounts invested in stocks and bonds. In return, those workers would see a corresponding reduction in their traditional Social Security benefit.
The Social Security system needs radical change to be saved, Bush said, and one step he is proposing is a private accounts system. He said they would give the younger workers allowed to set them up a better rate of return — without mentioning possible negative results — and that money in them could be passed on to heirs.
"We will make the system a better deal for younger workers by allowing them to save some of their payroll taxes in voluntary personal retirement accounts — a nest egg they can call their own, which government can never take away," the president said.
A new poll showed Bush has significant work to do to convince Americans his approach is the right one. His plan to divert Social Security money into private retirement accounts got the approval of just over a third of those surveyed by Princeton Survey Research Associates International for Newsweek magazine.
In addition, a majority — 56 percent — said it is too risky to invest Social Security money in the stock market, the poll found.
Nearly a quarter of those polled said they approved of Bush's proposed changes. Yet, among workers younger than 44, those generally thought to be more supportive of the plan because they would have more to gain from it, just 28 percent said they approved of the proposal.
The poll, in which 1,009 adults were interviewed Feb. 3-4, has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Bush acknowledged that more must be done to solve the long-term financial problems of the government retirement program.
"We will make Social Security's finances permanently sound, not leave the task for another day," he said.
Democrats have disputed Bush's assertion the Social Security system is in crisis, pointing out that it is not until 2042 when the system will be able to cover only about 73 percent of benefits owed. Most also oppose Bush's plan for private accounts, saying they would result in unacceptable benefit cuts, add to the federal debt and speed the program's insolvency.
In his party's weekly radio address Saturday, Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe replied: "While Social Security faces challenges, Bush's privatization plan would make things worse. Benefit cuts, massive debt and more insecurity are not the type of drastic changes we need to make to our nation's retirement security."
McAuliffe called Bush's approach a "selfish agenda" and said Democrats have a better approach for addressing the problems Social Security faces "down the road."