WASHINGTON – Capping the end of a 60-day nationwide tour to promote changes to the Social Security system, President Bush (search) on Thursday night repeated many of the proposals he made on the road, emphasizing both personal investment accounts and gauging benefits to personal income.
In a prime-time address to the nation, Bush also chastised anyone in Congress who would try to cast the Social Security (search) debate in a political light.
"I am willing to listen to any good idea from either party," Bush said, adding that if Congress can set aside politics then "Republicans and Democrats will be able to stand together and take credit for doing what is right for our children and grandchildren."
Bush said that a hole in the safety net has been created "because Congresses have made promises they cannot keep for younger generations."
He pledged that all Americans born before 1950 will receive full benefits. He also proposed that benefits for low-income workers will rise more quickly than for people who are better off. Third, he said he wants to give young workers the option of investing their Social Security taxes into personal accounts.
"I know some Americans have reservations about investing in the stock market, so I propose that one investment option consist entirely of treasury bonds, which are backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government," he said.
Throughout his remarks, the president repeated that he wanted to work with lawmakers to come up with a plan to help a program that is expected to go broke in 36 years.
"I will work with Congress on any good-faith proposal that does not raise the payroll rate or harm our economy," he said.
The news conference — Bush's fourth in prime time since taking office in 2001 — came as a FOX News poll released Wednesday shows Americans remain confused on whether the personal investment accounts touted by the president would be optional or mandatory.
The president has been pitching personal investment accounts as a way to meet the rising cost of retirement living, saying that letting people decide where to grow their money will give them a better rate of return than the financially strapped government can provide.
But many Democrats and groups including the AARP believe relying on personal investment accounts that are tied to the whims of Wall Street could leave many older Americans vulnerable. Some prominent Republicans have backed away from the plan, most recently Sen. Olympia Snowe (search) of Maine, who sits on the Senate Finance Committee.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said prior to the president's speech that she hoped the president would scrap the plan altogether.
"What I'm hoping the president tonight will say about Social Security and his privatization plan is 'uncle.' ... I think [the 60-day tour] has been a dismal failure. I think the more he's out there, the less people approve of his handling of Social Security," she said.
According to the FOX News poll, however, private accounts are not a dead issue. Among those surveyed, 53 percent overall said they are in favor of private accounts, with that number rising to 64 percent of people under age 55. Overall, 74 percent said the president and Congress must do something about the faltering system now rather than waiting until it is too late.
On Tuesday, the House Ways and Means Committee heard from a Democratic Social Security expert named Robert Pozen, who said benefits need to be restructured to be more generous to low-income workers.
"We need to treat low-wage workers a little better in Social Security because they're more dependent on it and they don't have these other retirement programs," Pozen said, adding that his plan would guarantee all scheduled benefit increases in the future for the lowest 30 percent of workers, then trim the amount of benefit increases for all others, with the reductions getting deeper as incomes go up. Currently, Social Security benefits for everyone will be cut to about 73 percent of their current benefits when the trust fund goes broke in 2041.
Pozen said his plan alone would go a long way toward repairing Social Security's finances. Last week, Bush called Pozen's plan "a good idea."
Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (search), R-Iowa, said Wednesday he may encourage the panel to approve a bill that doesn't include personal accounts in order to get it on the Senate floor.
After the president's speech, Grassley praised Bush for his "steadfast leadership on this issue.
"Those who are spending their time attacking and trying to frame this debate in partisan terms would do a lot more good for future retirees by working to find solutions to put this vital program on sustainable footing ... I want to take advantage of the environment created by the president’s leadership to strengthen Social Security," he said.
Asked whether he would be willing to accept a Social Security reform plan that omitted personal investment accounts, Bush reiterated his support for them.
"I feel strongly that there needs to be personal savings accounts as part of the Social Security system. It's got to be part of the comprehensive package," he said, adding that debt is high and workers should have control over their own money.
"Why should ownership be confined only to rich people?" he asked, pointing to Congress' Thrift Savings plan, which the president's plan aims to mimic. "The accounts are a better deal. The accounts will mean something for a lot of workers who might not have assets to call their own."
Black Gold's Rising Cost
Also addressing a major concern to Americans — rising energy prices — Bush said energy consumption is growing 40 times faster than domestic production, meaning that Americans are becoming more and more beholden to foreign producers.
Bush said that in the short term, he would do what he could to encourage oil-producing nations to maximize production. He met earlier this week with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah (search). He said he also would protect consumers from price-gouging at the pump.
He also listed four prongs to reducing America's energy dependence: using better technology to become better conservers of energy; finding innovative and environmentally sensitive ways to make the most of existing energy resources; developing new sources of energy, such as hydrogen, ethanol or bio-diesel; and helping growing energy consumers overseas, like China and India, apply new technologies to use energy more efficiently and reduce global demand of fossil fuels.
The House voted 249-183 last week for White House-backed legislation that would give tax cuts and subsidies to energy companies and open a wildlife refuge in Alaska to oil exploration. The Senate has not yet acted. Bush praised the House for its action and urged the Senate to act quickly.
"American consumers have waited long enough. To help reduce our dependence on foreign sources of energy, Congress needs to get an energy bill to my desk by this summer, so I can sign it into law," Bush said.
In a Wednesday speech, Bush said that America's dependence on oil should be shifted over to nuclear energy, and called for an increase in plant production. He also called for $2.5 billion in tax breaks over 10 years for people who buy gas-electric and clean-diesel automobiles.
On Thursday, he repeated his call to develop an active nuclear energy policy. He also said more efforts should be placed on developing liquefied natural gas and clean coal technology to improve energy supply. The president also promoted technology that could allow for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with little disruption to the environment.
But Bush conceded that the energy bill that passed the House will not impact current gas prices.
"Ten years ago, if we'd have had an energy strategy, we would be able to diversify away from foreign dependence. But we haven't done that. And now we find ourselves in the fix we're in. It's taken us a while to get there, it's going to take us a while to get out," he said, repeating his hope that increased supply from oil-producing nations would lower prices at the pump.
Full Faith in Judicial Nominees
Opening the floor to the press, Bush fielded a wide array of questions ranging in topic from faith and filibusters of his judicial nominees to North Korea, Iraq and terrorism.
Seven of Bush's nominees for federal court have been held up from confirmation to the bench through the use of the filibuster (search) tactic in the Senate, which requires votes of 60 senators to prevent ending debate and moving to a straight majority vote. Since Republicans only have a 55-seat majority and are unable to win over more than a couple of Democrats in some cases, they are never able to beat the filibuster and move to a vote.
On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (search) offered a compromise to Democrats by allowing 100 hours of debate on each nominee so that every member can have his or her say. But after the debate, each nominee would get a vote. Several Democrats immediately rejected the plan, saying that it denies them their constitutional right to reject nominees that they think are ill-suited for the bench.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (search), who has been negotiating behind the scenes with Frist, called it a "slow-motion nuclear option," a variation on the description given to Republican efforts to ban filibusters on judicial nominees.
Bush said for the sake of fairness, he thinks his nominees should get a vote by the Senate.
"I think people are opposing my nominees because they don't like the judicial philosophy of the people I've nominated. And some would like to see judges legislate from the bench. That's not my view of the proper role of a judge," he said, adding that people who want to use their own faith or refer to another's in determining the qualifications of an individual are doing a disservice.
"As I said, I think faith is a personal issue. And I take great strength from my faith. But I don't condemn somebody in the political process because they may not agree with me on religion."
Bush also defended John Bolton (search), whom the president nominated to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Bolton's confirmation has been stalled by Democrats who say his temper is too nasty to take the top U.S. diplomatic post in the world body.
"John Bolton is a blunt guy. Sometimes people say I'm little too blunt. ... It seemed like to me it made sense to put somebody who's capable, smart, served our country for 20 years, been confirmed by the United States Senate four times and who isn't afraid to speak his mind in the post of the ambassador to the U.N.," Bush said, adding that the United Nations is in need of reforms and Bolton is committed to seeing them through.
A Slow Retreat by the Enemy
With a State Department report released Wednesday that shows terrorism acts have increased in the last year as well as remarks from the Defense Department's Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman that the number of insurgents in Iraq is the same now as a year ago, Bush was asked how peace can be achieved in Iraq and elsewhere.
Bush responded that Al Qaeda (search) has been severely diminished and is being dismantled. He added that in the short run, troops and assets and agents will be used to find insurgents and protect Americans. But in the long run, freedom and democracy must prevail.
Bush said he could not predict whether attacks will remain consistent in the near term, but that the United States would remain vigilant. He refused to give a timetable for withdrawal of American troops.
"We will stay on the offense. We'll be relentless, we'll be smart about how we go after the terrorists, we'll use our friends and allies to go after the terrorists, we will find them where they hide and bring them to justice."
Bush praised Iraqi civilians who have signed up in droves to join the military, and he gave details of a conversation he held with Iraq's incoming Prime Minister lbrahim Al-Jaafari, in which he confirmed Jaafari's commitment to getting a constitution and a permanent assembly. He said he also invited him to come to the United States.
"There are a lot of courageous people in Iraq that are making a big difference in the lives of that country. I also want to caution you all that it's not easy to go from a tyranny to a democracy. We didn't pass sovereignty but about 10 months ago. And since that time a lot of progress has been made," he said.
Bush said the United States continues to work with other nations to make sure Iran doesn't develop a nuclear weapon. Iran has insisted its uranium enrichment is for the peaceful purpose of building a nuclear energy plant, which Bush questioned but said he was willing to let diplomacy sort out a little longer.
"I'm, kind of, wondering why they need one, since they've got all the oil," he said of the facility.
The president also argued that the multilateral approach is the best for North Korea, whose leader, Kim Jong Il, has rattled sabers by insisting on building nuclear weapons. U.S. intelligence analysts said Thursday that they believe North Korea has several years to before it can figure out how to put a nulcear device onto a warhead and shoot it over the ocean.
In the meantime, Bush repeated his commitment to getting a missile defense shield in place while letting China and other nations take the lead on dealing with Pyongyang.
"There is concern about his capacity to deliver a nuclear weapon. We don't know if he can or not, but I think it's best, when you're dealing with a tyrant like Kim Jong Il, to assume he can. That's why I've decided that the best way to deal with this diplomatically is to bring more leverage to the situation by including other countries," Bush said.
A Timely News Event
Asked what he thought of polls showing lagging support for his plans, Bush repeated his oft-stated view that he tries not to lead by following weekly opinion surveys. He added that it's his duty to educate people about the challenges they are facing and options available.
"You know, if a president tries to govern based on polls, you're kind of like a dog chasing your tail. I don't think you can make good, sound decisions based upon polls," Bush said.
He also denied that the atmosphere in Washington has been poisoned by partisanship to the point of no return. The president pledged to continue to work "with people of both parties and share credit." He also asked for people to accept the difficulty of the choices that have to be made in the coming years.
"We're asking people to do things that haven't been done for 20 years. We haven't addressed the Social Security problem since 1983. We haven't had an energy strategy in our country for decades. So I'm not surprised that some are balking at doing hard work," he added.
Even if Bush doesn't rely on polls, the timing of the president's press conference to coincide with the end of his tour couldn't have hurt. Bush held his last solo news conference on March 16. The last press conference during prime time was in April of last year. White House advisers are trying to have him hold the sessions on a monthly basis, far more frequently than in his first term.
FOX News' Jim Angle and Jane Roh contributed to this report.