WASHINGTON — One hundred days into his second term, President George W. Bush seems a bit adrift. He has dipped below the 50-percent level in approval ratings (47 percent). His “60 stops in 60 days” campaign to promote his program to reform Social Security has boomeranged, with fewer people supporting his changes now than before. His nominee for United Nations ambassador is dangling in suspended animation in what was supposed to be a friendly Senate committee. Things are not going well for the president.
On April 28, Bush gained prime-time access to all four TV networks to promote his social security plan, discuss the high cost of gasoline and address other matters. The next night, Lou Dobbs, a CNN commentator, asked viewers to rate the president’s message. Had Bush’s presentation caused viewers to think more, less or the same about the Social Security plan he was espousing? Three percent thought better of it; 28 percent were unchanged in their view; while 70 percent were less favorably disposed to the plan. Dobbs did not ask about the fuel-price issue as Bush had not presented a plan.
I watched the president’s TV appearance and it was not pretty. He could not get comfortable and he could not articulate his message. But it wasn’t just the presentation that made the president’s message unpopular; his message was not a pleasant one to most Americans.
He began to lay out his plan for “saving” Social Security, presenting, for the first time, specific elements of how he would change the system to correct its fiscal problems. And the president’s first proposal for reform is a massive reduction in benefits for most recipients.
In the plan that Bush proposed, people in the lowest 30-percent income range would get the same benefits promised by current law. But the plan would reduce benefits for everyone else, using a sliding scale that would inflict deeper cuts on high-income earners than on middle-income people. For average-wage earners, the benefit cut would be 16 percent if they reach retirement age in 2045 and 28 percent if they retire in 2075. For upper-income people, the benefit cut for those retiring in 2045 would be 29 percent and 49 percent for those retiring in 2075.
This is a political gamble by the president. He is putting the benefits cuts on the table in an attempt to break the logjam in Congress. It will provide political grist for members of both parties who accept that something painful must be done to correct the Social Security dilemma. It may also permanently harden a wall of opposition by Democrats and others to the president and prevent any compromises from coming forward.
Congressional Republicans took advantage of the president’s opening by announcing a plan to produce a bill by midsummer that they said would resolve the problem. Democrats continue to insist that the president needs to renounce any plan for private (or individual) accounts before they will engage in any serious discussion of a solution.
My opinion is unchanged. There is little chance for any action on Social Security in this Congress. There will be continuing talk but no action.
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