WASHINGTON – Back from stroking U.S. allies in Europe, President Bush now is lobbying a home-front target: wary lawmakers returning from a long congressional break, where they heard their constituents' concerns about Social Security (search) overhaul. The lawmakers got an earful from voters back home. Now, Bush wants them to listen to him.
"We need to act now to fix Social Security permanently," he said Saturday in a radio address aimed at Congress.
The president is making a fresh push for his plan to let younger workers put part of their Social Security payroll taxes in private investment accounts. He has taken that campaign to eight states and is continuing it next Friday in New Jersey and Indiana.
Bush is making the trips in hopes of persuading voters to pressure Congress to tackle the future solvency problems of the politically sensitive Social Security system. His message is twofold: reassure those born before 1950 that their Social Security benefits will not change in any way and tell younger workers that "Social Security is heading toward bankruptcy."
"Massive numbers of baby boomers, like me, will soon begin to retire," Bush said in his radio remarks. "People are living longer and benefits are scheduled to increase dramatically, and fewer workers will be paying into the system to support each retiree."
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (search), the new Democratic Party chairman, criticized Bush earlier this week for suggesting Social Security faces a big crisis.
As for Bush's plan to create personal investment accounts, Dean told a crowd at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan., "I don't believe the way to fix Social Security is to have Wall Street run it so that it can be invested in Enron (search) and Tyco (search) and MCI (search) ," three companies plagued by high-profile scandals.
Bush readily admits that the personal retirement accounts won't solve the solvency problem, but he wants them to be part of a permanent fix.
If left unchanged, beginning as early as 2018, Social Security is set to pay out more in benefits than it collects in taxes. And by 2042, the money stored from past surpluses will be exhausted and Social Security will only be able to pay 73 percent of promised benefits from the revenues it will be taking in, according to the retirement program's trustees.
Bush has said all options are on the table for strengthening Social Security, except for hiking the payroll tax rate. He has firmly opposed raising the 12.4 percent tax rate on wages up to $90,000. But he and his advisers have been vague about whether he would go along with increasing the total amount of earnings subjected to that taxation.
Before leaving Washington for an extended recess, Republican lawmakers were coached on how to reassure older Americans that Social Security will remain unchanged for retirees as well as workers age 55 and up. Suggested talking points also focused extensively on the demographic difficulties that loom for younger workers. They touched only lightly on personal accounts.
Some members of the Senate and House held town-hall meetings to discuss Social Security with their constituents. Wavering members of Congress held similar meetings to take the pulse of public opinion.
Democrats went home with talking points too.
They argue that the Republicans want to privatize Social Security, which would undermine retirement security for all Americans because it would require cutting guaranteed benefits for some recipients by more than 40 percent.
"The proposal for risky private accounts won't make up the loss in benefits for millions of Americans," said material that House Democrats received from their leadership to use with constituents.
Bush remains undaunted.
"Every year we wait to address this problem will make any eventual solution more painful and drastic, and we will saddle our children and grandchildren with an ever-greater burden," he said Saturday. "We need to act now to fix Social Security permanently."