Bush 2.0


Los Angeles Times

May 1, 2005

It seems like just yesterday that George W. Bush was bragging about all the political chips he'd accumulated on Nov. 2, and about how he was going to go about spending them. But in holding the first prime-time news conference of his second term on Thursday, just shy of its 100-day mark, the president was remarkably subdued. He came across as humble even, maybe on account of his plunging approval ratings. Or maybe it was because NBC made the president of the United States defer to "The Apprentice" and change the time of the conference.

Bush has been traveling the country for weeks like a wild-eyed prophet of Social Security doom, pitching his private accounts as salvation. The more he talks, the less popular his proposals have become. Obsessing about a distant crisis (the eventual shortfall facing the Social Security system) and linking it to a fake solution (those private accounts) have made Bush seem adrift. This is odd when you consider that Bush is the first president since Lyndon B. Johnson to have his party in command of both houses of Congress at the start of his second term.

The Republican Congress is making its way down its golden-oldies wish list — like tort reform and the recent changes in bankruptcy law — but Bush looks increasingly like a bystander. Bush claims to want to overhaul immigration policy, passionately, but the White House is not leading on the issue. Bush was a hapless observer recently as the Senate filibustered a sensible bipartisan bill that would address the status of undocumented agricultural workers.

On Social Security, last week's news conference was all about bringing the wild-eyed prophet back from the wilderness, reviving the debate and reinserting Bush at its center. And here Democrats should be careful not to underestimate the president, who has proved in the past to be quite adept at midcourse adjustment. It's still a long shot, admittedly, but it wouldn't be out of character for Bush to pull off a fundamental change in Social Security that shores up the system's finances, even though he first latched onto the peripheral private accounts issue.

The president hinted at a significant adjustment when he raised the idea of embracing "progressive indexing." The idea is to link the growth of benefits owed to higher- income retirees to inflation, while keeping the benefits owed to lower-income retirees indexed to wage growth, which is usually greater. Bush, who likes saying that being president is hard work but rarely acknowledges that it entails tough choices, was, for once, talking about possible solutions to the real problem.

Another measure of Bush's sincerity will be his willingness to raise the cap on the amount of wages — currently $90,000 — subject to the payroll tax. The president was careful to say he was willing to look at any "good-faith proposal that does not raise the payroll tax rate" — words that leave open the possibility of applying the same rate to more of an individual's wages.

Such a move could ensure Social Security's solvency for generations to come, and maybe even pay for some contribution to his beloved private accounts.