Bush comes to juncture on signature initiative

Direction he opts to take should become clear soon

Analysis

April 29, 2005|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush's signature domestic initiative, an overhaul of Social Security, reached a crossroads during his prime-time hour on national TV.

Last night may have been the moment his plan to add private retirement accounts for younger workers finally started taking off. Or it may have marked the beginning of his exit strategy.

Which of those paths Bush is actually headed down should become clear before too long.

While outlining, for the first time, a set of principles that addresses the program's projected funding shortfall, Bush also signaled strongly that he's prepared to blame Congress if nothing happens.

Americans "expect their leaders in Washington to address the problem," said Bush, repeatedly pointing at past Congresses for making promises to younger workers that Washington can no longer be expected to meet.

By opening a debate on means-testing Social Security and protecting low-income workers from benefit cuts, Bush also was attempting to answer Democratic critics who say that his proposal for individual accounts unfairly favors the rich.

Bush insisted that progress was being made and that the process of changing Social Security was "just really getting started." Often underestimated in the past, and stubborn by nature, he isn't likely to give up easily on his initiative.

But his intensive 60-day campaign to generate enthusiasm for his idea seems to have had the reverse effect.

Polls show declining public support for personal accounts. Relatively few Republicans outside the administration have been willing to heartily embrace the idea of a huge change in Social Security, particularly those members of Congress who must face the voters in potentially close races next year.

Democrats, uncharacteristically unified in their opposition and anticipating a rare victory over the president, have been taunting him for weeks.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi proclaimed yesterday that Bush's tour had been "a dismal failure."

"The more the president travels, the better off we are," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said again the other day.

Some independent analysts believe Bush made a huge miscalculation in thinking that his re-election was a mandate for a sweeping overhaul of perhaps the nation's most politically volatile government program. He also may have underestimated how sharply polarized the country is, in spite of the majority that he won in November.

"This may go down in history, alongside Clinton's health care proposal, as a spectacular failure," said Mark Rozell, a George Mason University political scientist.

Attention now shifts to Congress, where little progress has been made and even some of the president's staunchest supporters admit that time is running out. "That's the classic presidential strategy for avoiding blame - to kick the issue over to Capi- tol Hill and then to blame Congress if Congress does not act," Rozell said.

Bush said last night that both parties needed to rise above politics because "Social Security is too important for politics as usual." He promised that Republicans and Democrats alike would benefit if something gets done.

Meantime, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, the president's 2004 campaign manager, issued a statement that "the time for Democrat obstructionism is over."

In an apparent effort to emulate the last great Republican overhaul of Washington's priorities - Ronald Reagan's huge tax and spending cuts in the first year of his presidency -White House strategists wanted to have a new Social Security system on Bush's desk before this summer was out.

Instead, the next few months will determine how much life, if any, is left in Bush's proposal.

"I think the president is clearly down a couple of runs, but it's still the middle innings," said Michael Tanner of the libertarian Cato Institute, a leading proponent of individual Social Security accounts.

But chances of success will grow dimmer "if things haven't turned around by midsummer," he said.

Tanner, who testified this week as the Senate Finance Committee opened hearings on the subject, believes Bush spent too much time trying to convince the public that Social Security faces a crisis and not enough time in promoting a solution.

But others have criticized Bush for, in effect, leading with his chin, by promoting private accounts at the outset of the debate.

Bush has acknowledged that personal accounts for younger workers, by themselves, won't do anything to fix Social Security's funding problems. Others, including the head of the Government Accountability Office, have pointed out that adding personal accounts would actually deepen the financial squeeze, at least in the short term.

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