WASHINGTON – Perhaps hoping to win over undecided Democrats to President Bush's Social Security (search) reform proposal, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove told FOX News on Wednesday that former President Bill Clinton did "a courageous thing" by pointing out the retirement program's problems.
"President Clinton did a courageous thing when he pointed out the looming insolvency of Social Security," Rove said, adding that the current program is facing "a demographic time bomb that's going to go off with certainty."
Social Security (search) currently is taking in more money than it pays out, and is expected to do so for the next 13 to 15 years. But after that, the program will be paying out more money than it collects and is likely to go bankrupt by 2042 or 2052, depending on whose calculations are used.
Bush calls that situation a crisis and has proposed letting workers invest 4 percent of the wages subject to payroll taxes into personal accounts. The money diverted to investments would naturally decrease Social Security payments to people when they retire.
Democrats argue that the system is not in crisis and that changes to the program — for instance, raising the age of retirement or lifting the $90,000 cap on income taxed — will do the trick to keep the system solvent.
Rove, who is considered the architect of Bush's election wins both in 2000 and 2004, said time is an ally for lawmakers who want to make sure that the Social Security Trust Fund stays solvent.
"We may disagree as to what month exactly it happens, but the Social Security Trust Fund cannot sustain the program," Rove said on FOX News' "Hannity & Colmes." "The earlier we act, the better it is. The more likely we give younger workers a better chance to have this robust earning vehicle called the personal retirement account. And the longer we wait, the more difficult a solution comes."
In the exclusive interview, Rove, who is a lightning rod for Democratic criticism, said he expects Democrats to oppose the president's agenda, because that's "the way Washington works." He also said the president will continue to reach across party lines to encourage Democrats to "sort of leave politics behind at a certain point."
He specifically referred to Sen. Harry Reid (search), the new Senate minority leader, who is already winning from conservatives the title "obstructionist" given to his predecessor, Sen. Tom Daschle, who lost re-election this year. Rove said Reid is a "nice fellow" but the president is not going to lose focus or take it personally when Reid objects to the president's agenda.
Rove, who recently won his new job title through what he deemed "a natural evolution," is going to be focusing much more on policy issues. Regarding the drift between the United States and its European allies since Bush became president, Rove said part of the effort to reconcile is to let the Europeans take the lead on dealing with Iran's nuclear program (search) even though Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is "spending a lot of time talking with European leaders" about the need to pressure Iran to dismantle the program.
Rove also said that he is hopeful that with the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the democratization of Iraq that the United States and its allies "have a real opportunity for fundamental reform in the Palestinian Authority (search) and the creation of two states, living in peace and harmony in Palestine and Israel."
Despite Rove's new focus on policy issues, he still hasn't lost his fix on election politics, the sport that earned him his reputation and the nickname "Boy Genius."
Rove declined to comment on the CBS News controversy in which the network reported that Bush skipped out on his Texas Air National Guard duties using documents that are believed to be forgeries.
He also took a pass on reacting to the idea of a possible Hillary Clinton (search) presidency. The former first lady and New York senator has frequently been named as the natural front-runner in 2008.
"I think the presidential elections in 2008 are unpredictable. I do think the country is going to want to see a center-right candidate. And the question is, can the Democrats offer up a candidate who's comfortable enough with Americans that they can overcome the advantage that we've got as being a true center-right party in America?" he said, adding that not all the 2008 presidential candidates are obvious picks right now.
But Rove did praise the senator's husband, whom he called a "third way Democrat" who "artfully understood" the position from which to lead the United States.
"Remember, he ran for president in 1992 talking about balanced budgets and welfare reform and supported the death penalty. And he understood that there were symbolic steps that he could take to sort of emphasize his center credentials," Rove said.
Nonetheless, Rove said he believes Republicans more accurately reflect the "center right" nature of the American electorate and that is why they have won the elections in 2000 and 2002 when the odds were stacked against them.
Click in the box near the top of the story to watch Sean Hannity's interview with White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove.