Reform of Social Security at the top of Bush agenda

Mideast peace also a key goal of ambitious second term

Continued support on Iraq urged

President says U.S. won't force ideology on other nations

State Of The Union

February 03, 2005|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush outlined an activist second-term agenda including steps to "strengthen and save Social Security" and bring peace to the Middle East, calling on Congress last night to stay the course in Iraq while tackling his ambitious domestic plans.

Bush, who has promised skeptical Republicans to lead the charge for his controversial proposal to add personal retirement accounts to Social Security, used his annual State of the Union address to detail the plan and lay out his justification for the change.

But he offered no solution for staving off the system's projected insolvency in about 2042, which most say will require reducing the level of benefits now promised to future retirees or raising taxes - something that Bush ruled out.

Workers under the age of 55 should have the option of investing as much as 4 percentage points from their payroll taxes in personal retirement accounts, Bush said, calling the plan "a better deal for younger workers" than they would receive under the current program.

Declaring Social Security "headed toward bankruptcy" - prompting hoots of derision from Democrats - he called on Congress to help find a way to permanently fix the program. Bush mentioned several possible solutions, including cutting future benefits, limiting benefits for the wealthy or raising the retirement age, saying that "all these ideas are on the table," and acknowledging that "none of these reforms would be easy."

But he did not spell out his preference, prompting bitter criticism from Democrats who said the president was ducking the tough decisions needed to shore up Social Security while pushing a solution that would exacerbate its problems.

On the heels of an inaugural speech last month that asserted a sweeping new policy of spreading freedom and democracy around the globe, Bush sought to clarify what some interpreted as an aggressive and overreaching new foreign policy mandate.

"The United States has no right, no desire, and no intention to impose our form of government on anyone else," he said. "That is the main difference between us and our enemies."

Bush hailed Sunday's elections in Iraq as a vindication of his administration's policy there.

"We are standing for the freedom of our Iraqi friends, and freedom in Iraq will make America safer for generations to come," the president said.

Many Republican lawmakers stained their index fingers purple with ink in solidarity with Iraqi voters, and they stood waving them in the well of the House as Bush drew a parallel between them and the freely elected leaders in Afghanistan, the Palestinian territories, Ukraine and Iraq.

The balloting marked the start of a "new phase" in the U.S. mission in Iraq, Bush said, in which training Iraqi security forces will be a top priority. But the president did not present any plan for withdrawing U.S. troops, something that some Democrats have demanded.

In the first State of the Union of his second term, Bush cast himself as a bold leader willing to rise above partisan politics to take on pressing problems both domestically and internationally. Still, many of the more than 60 bursts of applause that interrupted his 53-minute speech were partisan, with the Republican side of the House chamber clapping as most Democrats sat quietly with their hands in their laps.

Keenly aware that a re-elected president's power wanes with each passing day, Bush returned often to the theme of tackling challenges now in order to improve the lot of generations to come.

Bush highlighted the conservative values that marked his first term and helped him win re-election last year, reaffirming his support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and pledging to work with Congress to prohibit the creation of human embryos for medical testing. And Bush, who in his first term saw 10 of his conservative judicial picks blocked by Democratic filibusters, said all such nominees "deserve an up-or-down vote."

Democrats, gearing up for intense battles with Bush over Social Security and the U.S. mission in Iraq, dismissed the speech as a litany of familiar, failed prescriptions for the nation's woes that glossed over the difficult choices facing his administration and the Congress.

The speech injected new vitriol into what is shaping up as a bitterly partisan debate over reforming the 70-year-old federal retirement program, which will be fueled by a month-long national marketing blitz Bush begins today to showcase his proposal for personal retirement accounts.

Democrats decried Bush's plan as a risky one that would take the guaranteed benefits that are the bedrock of the federal retirement system and shift them into an unreliable investment scheme.

In Democrats' formal response to Bush, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the minority leader, said the president was wrong to call his plan Social Security reform, saying, "It's more like Social Security roulette."

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