WASHINGTON, D.C.—In his televised press session Thursday night, President Bush appeared to be ready to reduce Social Security benefits and pretty much said he can’t do anything about gas prices because, among other things, we haven’t had an energy policy in 20 years—so you can’t expect things to change overnight.
With his vision for overhauling the national retirement system—largely by shifting to private investment accounts—sinking in the court of public opinion, Bush took to the airwaves with a message of, well, get over it. “All Americans born before 1950 will receive the full benefits,” he said. As for the rest of you, that’s another matter.
By allowing payments to low-income workers to rise faster than those to wealthier ones, the overhaul can be made to work. And “as a matter of fairness, I propose that future generations receive benefits equal to or greater than the benefits today’s seniors get,” he said.
That sounds great, but progressives aren’t buying it. The Bush administration has been discussing a proposal sometimes called “progressive price indexing,” which entails quite substantial benefit reductions not only for affluent families but for middle-class ones, too, says Robert Greenstein, director of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank that tracks economic matters. Under it, the average worker would eventually see his or her payouts decline by 28 percent, the largest drop ever.
The president tonight suggested that the promises being made to younger workers now are empty, and that the workers instead should be banking on “real assets, real money.” That means sending them out to invest in the stock market, taking their chances. But he said, almost flippantly, that people could put their money into government bonds if they wanted to.
On energy policy—another sore spot for a public tired of paying more than $2 a gallon for gas—there was nothing new. Bush hopes countries with excess capacity can increase production to take some of the heat out of the market, but there aren’t any countries with excess capacity, except for Russia. With Russia’s oil industry is gripped by a huge scandal, no one can predict what’s going to happen there. However, the Russians have taken steps to limit participation by American companies to a minority interest, denying them any chance of gaining control.
Bush spoke jocularly of Russian leader Putin, calling him “Vladimir.” (Imagine FDR calling Churchill “Winston” or Stalin “Joe.”) And he reported Secretary of State Condi Rice had had a good long talk with Putin about the meaning of democracy. He was referring to Condi’s meeting last week, where she dressed down the Russian president for going squishy on democratic reform and resorting to the old authoritarian structures of the Soviet Union.
Bush used the bully pulpit to take up still more causes he has been losing on so far. He again made a plug to John Bolton, his beleaguered nominee for ambassador to the United Nations. And he spoke on behalf of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s dreamy Star Wars scheme for protecting the U.S. and perhaps Japan, a system that so far hasn’t shown much sign of working.