Transcript: Dan Bartlett on 'FOX News Sunday'

The following is a transcribed excerpt from "FOX News Sunday," March 6, 2005.

CHRIS WALLACE, FOX NEWS: Well, campaigning as if it's the week before the election, President Bush and top officials have launched a 60-day, cross-country marathon to sell the American people on the need to reform Social Security.

For more on that and other issues, we turn now to Dan Bartlett, counselor to the president.

Mr. Bartlett, welcome again. Good to have you back with us.


WALLACE: Before we get to Social Security, let's talk briefly about Syrian President Assad, who has announced that he's going to begin pulling his troops out of Lebanon beginning tomorrow but no timetable for when he's going to finish.

State Department has already said it's not enough. What's the president going to do about it?

BARTLETT: Well, you're right, President Assad's comments yesterday were more kind of these generalities and half measures, which is in complete contradiction to U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559.

The international community is united with the Lebanese people in asking and telling the Syrian government to withdraw its troops and, more importantly, or just as importantly, withdrawing its security secret services as well from Lebanon.

This is critically important for the future of the Lebanese people. We're going to continue to keep the pressure by speaking with a clear, united voice with the international community.

As you know well, this is something that President Bush has worked very closely with President Chirac of France on, the European Union, the Arab League. There are ever important voices that stepped forward this week as well: Russia, Saudi Arabia.

So the pressure is on Syria to live up to the international community's demands and fulfill the desires of the Lebanese people. And we'll continue to make clear that they understand that the international community is not going to stand by and let Assad continue to have these type of half measures, but to live up to his international demands.

WALLACE: All right. Back to domestic issues. There are reports that the White House wants Congress to pass Social Security reform by September, before the battle over the budget. Is that true?

BARTLETT: We think this is the year to act. And we're going to work with the leadership to do just that. Whether it's September or before or after that, that's going to be up to the committee chairmen in both chambers as well as the leadership themselves.

But I think it's important to take a step back. Here we are only about 30 days or so after the president's State of the Union address, where he clearly outlined the need to take on reform.

First and foremost, many of the critics of the president tried to act as if there wasn't a problem at all. Now we're hearing people come together to at least acknowledge that there's a problem.

We are, in football parlance, in the first quarter of this game. And it's an important quarter, because this is where you educate the American people. And we will be spending week after week after week educating the people about the system and the problem that Social Security has and what it's facing.

As you know quite well, 2008 is when the baby-boom generation begins to retire. That is when the pressure starts on our system. And by 2018, we go into the red.

BARTLETT: It's critical that this Congress and this administration come together and not start ruling things out but start putting things on the table and working together in a bipartisan fashion to come up with a system that fulfills the promise to the next generation of retirees.

WALLACE: All right, but you — I don't know that I agree, necessarily, that it's the first quarter. If it is, it's certainly the end of the first quarter.

The president has been pushing Social Security reform hard for a month now. It was the centerpiece of his State of the Union address. He's been making speeches all over country already.

And according to the new polls, the more people learn about his plan, the more doubts they have. Here, take a look.

The Pew Research Center found that just 29 percent of those surveyed approve of the way the president is handling Social Security. Fifty-five percent disapprove. That's his lowest rating for any issue.

And in a Fox News-Opinion Dynamics poll, when asked about personal accounts, 40 percent say they're a good idea; 47 percent, a bad one.

Now, the president has just launched this new 60-day, 60-stop campaign. Is it going to just be more of the same, or is he going to retool his message?

BARTLETT: Well, Chris, I'm glad you showed that Fox News poll because if you peel back the numbers on the personal accounts, the vast majority of opposition to personal accounts come from people who are 55 and older.

Well, in fact, President Bush's plan is very clear in saying that if you were born before 1950, you will see no change in your benefits. It's a critical message.

And we also understand why seniors are skeptical. Any time that Social Security becomes a topic of discussion in Washington, they fear that means something bad for them, because that's been part of the disinformation, part of the third rail of American politics that has soured this issue so much.

So President Bush...

WALLACE: But you've been saying that. You've been saying that. My question is: Is he going to retool his message, or is it just more of the same?

BARTLETT: Well, it's going to be very aggressive in explaining, particularly to America's seniors, that no changes in benefits, no changes in the system if you were born before 1950.

But we are in a phase in the debate in which we have to continue to educate people. This is a very tough issue. If it could be done in 30 days, it would have already been done by past Congresses and past presidents.

It's going to take a sustained effort. It's going to take one in which the entire administration, working with like-minded members of Congress who want to see real change, to work in a concerted way to get it done.

WALLACE: At what point will the president endorse a specific plan, not only for his personal accounts but also for solving the long-term solvency issue?

BARTLETT: Well, that's going to be up to the leadership when we see a — when it's time to go forward. First and foremost, the...

WALLACE: So the impetus is on the Congress, it's not on the White House, to come up with the specifics?

BARTLETT: Well, I think the first phase — as President Bush said in the State of the Union address, he's very willing to put ideas on the table. He's been very willing to let other people come forward with ideas.

I read in the papers today that Senator Chuck Hagel is putting an idea on the table. That's good progress. When people feel comfortable that there's an environment where ideas can be brought forward, then we're moving the process forward.

But we're still in the early phase of educating the public about why there needs to be change. Once that is cemented, then members of Congress will feel the pressure that they need to do something.

WALLACE: All right, let me ask you something about education. This is how President Bush described his idea for personal accounts this last week. Let's take a look.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Personal accounts is an add-on to that which the government's going to pay you. It doesn't replace the Social Security system.


WALLACE: Mr. Bartlett, that's not right. The president's plan is not an add-on, is it?

BARTLETT: Absolutely. Absolutely.

WALLACE: It's an add-on?

BARTLETT: Absolutely. See, this...

WALLACE: Well, wait a minute. Wouldn't it take revenue out of Social Security?

BARTLETT: Well, an add-on in the respect that there is disinformation being spread across the country that there will be no government benefit provided to future retirees. That is absolutely false. Every person who would select and voluntarily take a personal retirement account would be able to still receive benefits from the government.

Added on to that benefit would be the returns from a personal retirement account. So in that essence, it is an add-on.

WALLACE: But forgive me, most people up on Capitol Hill, when they talk about add-ons, are talking about you're going to have your regular, full, unchanged Social Security, and then we're going to add on the idea of personal accounts.

The plan the president's talking about, you would be taking revenues out of Social Security and if you invested in the accounts, you would lose some of your guaranteed benefits under Social Security.

BARTLETT: Well, you're not taking revenues out of Social Security. You're giving those revenues directly to the recipients, allowing it to grow in an account, which is a critical part of making sure that individuals are able to realize...

WALLACE: But they would be putting it in private accounts, not into the...

BARTLETT: They would be putting it in personal accounts...


BARTLETT: ... but that's not to say that would be their only source of income. There would still be a safety net provided by the government to each recipient.

And I think it's people who talk about the fact that there would be no change to the system under their plans is misleading the public. There is going to be changes to the system. We cannot afford the benefits that are being promised to future generations.

WALLACE: Mr. Bartlett, thank you. Always good to have you with us. There's a lot more to talk about, and we're going to have a lot more time to talk about it.

BARTLETT: Great. Look forward to it.

WALLACE: Thank you. Come back.