WASHINGTON – President Bush tried to regain the initiative on Social Security reform Thursday night, in part by suggesting a plan that would allow the benefits for low-income Americans to grow at a faster rate than those for wealthy citizens.
But in a pointed message not likely to reassure Americans who are griping all the way to the gas pump, Bush also said there was not much he could do to reduce record gas prices. In a rare prime-time news conference, Bush said the best time to pass an effective energy plan that could help today was 10 years ago.
The big news of the night was Bush’s singular, but significant, attempt to broaden the debate over Social Security. He offered, in effect, a sliding scale of Social Security benefits for future recipients.
Fresh off a 60-day nationwide Social Security blitz that had mixed results, Bush tried to put the onus for action on Congress.
“I am willing to listen to any good idea from either party,” Bush said. But he said the window for fixing the nation’s New Deal-era safety net was rapidly closing, and that he would persist whether it was politically popular or not.
Americans “understand that Social Security is headed for serious financial trouble and they expect their leaders in Washington to address” the problem, Bush said.
In the one-hour news conference, Bush also distanced himself from religious conservatives in his Republican Party by portraying an acrimonious battle over a handful of his federal judge nominees as one of ideology, not religious faith. Prominent religious conservatives, such as Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, have said recently that Democrats in the Senate were threatening to filibuster some of Bush’s judicial nominations because the nominees were people of faith. Democrats vehemently disagreed, saying Bush’s party was effectively trying to turn the U.S. into a conservative theocracy.
But Bush tried to seize middle ground by turning the argument back into one of political ideology, not religion, detouring around a growing national debate about the proper place for religious faith in the public square.
“I think people are opposing my nominees because they don’t like the judicial philosophy of the people I have nominated,” Bush said. “Some would like to see judges legislate from the bench. That is not my view of the proper role of a judge.”
He added that “people in public office should not say you are not equally American” if they hold different religious views, or are not religious at all.
Religion and politics aside, Bush clearly came to the podium Thursday night to make news on Social Security.
His new proposal would allow lower-income workers to accumulate future Social Security benefits higher than the rate of inflation while confining wealthier beneficiaries to the inflation rate. In effect, that would mean wealthier recipients of Social Security would see a reduction in benefits, based on the current scale.
The administration believes Bush has effectively made the case for reform. Indeed, Bush’s chief political adviser, Karl Rove, said in an interview with Gannett News Service and USA Today this week that Bush had made such an effective case for reform that it created an unrealistic expectation that Congress should fix the problem immediately.
One Bush idea – allowing younger workers to divert some of their Social Security taxes into privately controlled accounts – has been fiercely and, some say, effectively attacked by Democrats, who fear that it could undermine the entire system. Polls show that while many Americans believe something needs to be done, there is more consternation about private accounts than when Bush began his reform blitz tour.
On Thursday night, Bush refused to back down on his call for private accounts, saying they were an effective way to allow poorer Americans to build wealth in an “ownership society,” and pass it on to successive generations.
A deliberate Bush also tried to calm anxieties about continuing violence in Iraq and to push for an energy plan that he said would start the United States on a path of greater independence. But amid record gasoline prices at the pump, Bush also admitted that he could not do much as president to stem the current spike. He said he told a soldier at a recent visit to a military base that he wished he had that power, but didn’t.
Bush also said he was concerned about sluggish economic growth, but again tried reassurance, saying his economic advisers were confident of long-term economic health.
Then Bush, in a touch of humor, offered his own version of economic stimulus. A president notorious for avoiding news conferences said he wanted to hold his Thursday night exposure to an hour so he does not “get in the way for the sake of the TV shows” about to air at 9 p.m. ET.
“For the sake of the economy,” Bush said, preparing to exit.