Bush's Big Problem

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, December 10, 2004; 11:53 AM

The word of the day at the White House yesterday was "problem" -- as in, the Social Security problem.

If you only heard a sound bite or two from President Bush's brief comments after a meeting with the Social Security Trustees yesterday, you really missed the bruising lack of subtlety with which he -- and then his spokesman -- pounded away at this one message.

"We had a good discussion about the problems that face the Social Security system," Bush told the press, "and there is a recognition among the experts that we have a problem. And the problem is America is getting older and that there are fewer people to pay into the system to support a baby boomer generation which is about to retire.

"Therefore, the question is, does this country have the will to address the problem. I think it must. I think we have a responsibility to solve problems before they become acute. . . . [W]e must be willing to address this problem. . . . [T]he time is ready for us to solve this problem. . . . I think what's really important in the discussions is to understand the size of the problem. . . . What's important, Steve, is before we begin any discussion is to understand the scope of the problem. And that's why these trustees are vital in helping educate the American people, and Congress, as to the size of the problem. And I will not prejudge any solution. I think it's very important for the first step to be a common understanding of the size of the problem. . . .

"We have got a member of what was called the Moynihan Commission with us. They studied this problem in detail. They made some suggestions about how to move forward in solving the problem. Much of my thinking has been colored by the work of the late Senator Moynihan and the other members of the commission who took a lot of time to take a look at this problem, and who came up with some creative suggestions."

And, Bush said in closing: "We will not raise payroll taxes to solve this problem."

A couple hours later, press secretary Scott McClellan took to the podium for his press briefing. And in case anyone missed it: "We all need to agree that this is a real problem," he said. Over and over again.

It's like I wrote in my Tuesday column: An essential part of the Bush campaign to add private accounts to Social Security is getting the public to believe that there is in fact an imminent crisis.

That's step one; step two is to getting people to believe private accounts will help; step three is to getting people to believe that borrowing another $2 trillion or so right now to pay for them is a good idea.

And in pretty much all of today's coverage, as the White House surely hoped, the existence of some sort of amorphous, alarming Social Security problem was taken as a given. Step one seemingly accomplished.

But some liberals argue, like New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman did in a much-quoted piece earlier this week, that the crisis is mostly hype -- and certainly not imminent. Economist and blogger Brad DeLong recently wrote that it's the general fund -- not the Social Security trust fund -- that's in crisis, on account of the massive deficit. So borrowing more is precisely what not to do.

So is there a Social Security problem? Do 39 public White House assertions in one day make it so? How big is the problem, how imminent is it, and what are the precipitating factors?

The Bigger Picture

Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen write in The Washington Post about Bush's new domestic-policy strategy -- which helps explain the focus on the problem.

"President Bush is moving quickly to create a new, tighter and more disciplined domestic policy team to pursue transforming the way Americans save for retirement, pay taxes and seek legal damages. . . .

"To build public support and circumvent critics in Congress and the media, the president will travel the country and warn of the disastrous consequences of inaction, as he did to sell his Iraq and terrorism policies during the first term, White House officials said. He is also enlisting well-funded conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation to help build the case for change -- or 'reform,' in the words of the White House -- through ads and commentary on television and in targeted publications, the aides said. . . .

VandeHei and Allen also note that White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett "is devising Bush's public rollout plan for Social Security, focusing first on educating voters and reporters about Bush's case for the need for change. A later phase will focus on Bush's specific plans."

It may be worth noting here that, in retrospect, many news organizations have expressed regrets about not challenging Bush's assertions about the disastrous consequences of inaction the last time around.

Social Security Coverage

But confronted with, by their estimation, only one short sentence of anything approaching news -- Bush's reassertion that he is against payroll tax increases -- reporters this morning wrote mostly about tactical issues.

Warren Vieth writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Although the president said he did not want to prejudge Social Security legislation under consideration in Congress, his declaration appeared to undermine two leading proposals for overhauling the program -- both of which include an increase in the payroll tax for some higher-income workers.

"It also made it more likely that any measure Bush signed into law would rely on borrowed money and reductions in promised benefits for future retirees to finance the creation of private investment accounts and make the system financially sound."

Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times: "It was his most explicit declaration so far that he intended to borrow the money needed for the centerpiece of his approach, which is to let people divert some of their payroll taxes to private savings accounts.

"By restating a seemingly non-negotiable position on taxes, Mr. Bush will have a more difficult time gathering bipartisan support for his overhaul of Social Security. Many Democrats have argued that taxes need to be raised to finance Mr. Bush's initiative in order to avoid huge increases in the federal deficit."

And, Andrews writes: "In an indication of the potential minefields ahead, Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, repeatedly refused to answer reporters' questions about how ironclad Mr. Bush's no-tax statement was.

"Asked whether the president's no-tax stance included a commitment not to lift the ceiling on payroll taxes for high-income people, Mr. McClellan refused to answer explicitly."

Ron Hutcheson writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "Without a detailed proposal, no one can say how much debt would be required or for how long, but critics questioned Bush's approach.

"'President Bush seems to have painted himself into a corner on Social Security because he says no tax increases and no benefit cuts for current or "near" retirees, while insisting on costly private accounts with trillions in transition and administrative costs,' said Rep. Robert Matsui, D-Calif. 'The only thing he does not rule out is massive increases in the debt, but that would be a disaster not just for Social Security, but for the economy.'"

Scott Lindlaw writes for the Associated Press: "Three years after his Social Security commission issued recommendations on how to repair the system, Bush remained noncommittal Thursday on how he would pay for the estimated $2 trillion cost of revamping Social Security."

Lindlaw notes that Bush "sidestepped a reporter's query about whether the nation can afford new, large-scale debt at a time when deficits have reached record levels. Before engaging in such questions, the public and Congress must grasp the problem, Bush said."

Here's some straight talk from Jackie Calmes in the Wall Street Journal, who writes that "creating private accounts alone doesn't address Social Security's fundamental long-term problem: having fewer workers financing ever more retirees as baby boomers leave the work force. That requires tax increases, which Mr. Bush has ruled out, or benefit cuts, which he has ruled out for current and near-term retirees.

"While Mr. Bush has been silent, some administration officials privately acknowledge his idea is that workers who open private accounts would agree to take a smaller share of Social Security benefits."

Incidentally, Krugman weighs in on Social Security again today: "If Mr. Bush were to say in plain English that his plan to solve our fiscal problems is to borrow trillions, put the money into stocks and hope for the best, everyone would denounce that plan as the height of irresponsibility. The fact that this plan has an elaborate disguise, one that would add considerably to its costs, makes it worse."

And here's how not to cover the Social Security story: John Roberts on the CBS Evening News interviews someone who he says "could be the poster child for Social Security reform" who is "fully on board the plan to privatize parts of Social Security."

As Washington Monthly blogger Kevin Drum writes: "So -- just some random guy off the street? Not quite. More like a lobbyist for the very program the CBS segment was about. Don't they think their viewers might have appreciated that teensy weensy piece of information?"

And What About That Deficit?

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration said yesterday that it can create private Social Security accounts for younger workers without raising taxes or breaking the president's pledge to cut the deficit in half by 2009.

"The administration is on a 'very clear path toward meeting -- and, in fact, exceeding -- the president's goal of cutting the deficit in half,' White House budget director Joshua B. Bolten told reporters. He said the creation of private Social Security will not interfere with the deficit-reduction goals or the longer-term plan to restore 'fiscal restraint.'

"Bolten did not give details on how Bush can cut the deficit, keep the first-term tax cuts in place and overhaul Social Security, which could cost $100 billion or more annually over the first 10 years."

Ian McDonald writes in the Wall Street Journal, however: "The Beltway crowd could use some credit counseling.

"For proof, look no further than today's reading on the mammoth federal budget deficit from a blushing Treasury Department. For November, fresh data are expected to show that the government spent about $52 billion more than it took in. That follows a more than $57 billion gap the month before.

"So, two months into fiscal 2005, the U.S. is on pace to threaten last year's record budget deficit of nearly $413 billion."

And, he concludes: "Spending more than you bring in for a long time can lead to trouble whether you are a twentysomething living off credit cards or a winded superpower spending lots of borrowed money."

Cabinet Watch

Bush this morning named Treasury Deputy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman to be his nominee for Energy Secretary, leaving only the position of Health and Human Services without a nominee.

Edwin Chen writes in the Los Angeles Times: "With his second-term Cabinet all but selected, President Bush clearly intends to exert an even firmer control of his activist agenda than he did during his first four years, relegating the agencies to the role of carrying out his decisions."

Susan Page writes in USA Today: "With little fanfare and not much credit, President Bush has appointed a more diverse set of top advisers than any president in history. . . .

"Bush's defenders and some other analysts say his record on diversity deserves more notice than it has received. Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, calls it 'a strong governing management trait that has been under-reported.' . . .

But, Page notes: "Critics note that Bush's appointments to jobs below the Cabinet level haven't been as diverse as Clinton's."

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "President Bush all but completed his cabinet reorganization on Wednesday, appointing a former head of the Republican National Committee, Jim Nicholson, as head of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and announcing that four other department heads will stay on.

"The announcement, coming a day after Treasury Secretary John W. Snow was asked to remain in office, means that Mr. Bush is replacing nine cabinet secretaries, the greatest number in recent times. President Richard M. Nixon replaced eight members of his cabinet when he entered his second term, though the cabinet was smaller. Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan each replaced seven members of their cabinets."

Speaking of Snow, this AFP photo makes it look like he may still be a bit resentful about his 10 days in public limbo.

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post about Nicholson, another personal success story of the type that, as Frank James wrote in the Chicago Tribune the other day, Bush seems to have a soft spot for.


Mark Mazzetti writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush and top military commanders scrambled Thursday to contain the political damage from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's contentious meeting with U.S. soldiers bound for combat in Iraq, reassuring troops that the Pentagon was working hard to provide them with more safety equipment."

Happy Hannukah

The Associated Press reports: "At a menorah-lighting ceremony Thursday on the third night of Hanukkah, President Bush prayed for the safety and quick return of U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq."

Here's the transcript.

Today's Calendar

The president and first lady travel today to the USO Care Package Stuffing Facility in Fort Belvoir.

Inauguration Watch

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush's inaugural committee, seeking to raise more than $40 million, a record, sent out hundreds of solicitations to the president's biggest campaign contributors this week offering packages of party benefits and access to the president in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"Even at a time of war when more than 138,000 American troops are serving in Iraq, the organizers say that the inaugural celebration at the end of the January will not be marked by any noticeable restraint and will cost more than any other in history.

"But organizers also say that the prodigious Republican fund-raising will pay for a celebration that is to have a 'solemnity' missing from other inaugurals. . . .

Bumiller quotes an unnamed inaugural official as saying: "We're not going 'na, na, na, na, na.' Not out loud, anyway."

Jim Abrams writes for the Associated Press: "Security officials for the first presidential inauguration since Sept. 11, 2001, are requiring every reporter, photographer and cameraman who works in and around the Capitol that day to be fingerprinted and undergo background checks."

Civil Rights Commission Watch

Randal C. Archibold writes in the New York Times about Gerald A. Reynolds, the new chairman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, who believes that traditional civil rights groups overstate the problem of racial discrimination.

Archibold notes that six of the eight commissioners, "including a Virginia lawyer, Ashley L. Taylor, whom Mr. Bush appointed on Monday along with Mr. Reynolds to a six-year term, have conservative leanings."

As I wrote in yesterday's column, the commission's charter limits to four the number of commissioners from one political party. All six of the conservative-leaning commissioners have, at one time or another, been registered Republicans. But two currently identify themselves as independent.

Commissioner Abigail Thernstrom was a registered Republican as recently as the March presidential primary in Massachusetts, but a commission spokeswoman said she became an independent sometime before the November election.

And commissioner Russell Redenbaugh told me yesterday that he has been an independent most of his life, although he registered Republican around the time of Bush's 2001 inaugural. About a year and a half later, he said, he went independent again. "I don't find myself very comfortable in either political party, and yet I find parts of both parties appealing, and unappealing."

In Vogue

Robin Givhan writes in The Washington Post all about a picture that, unfortunately, you can't see online. Apparently, Vogue only granted print-publication rights. So you'll just have to imagine it.

"The first thing that one notices about the portrait of President and Laura Bush in the January issue of Vogue is its informality. The photograph was taken in the Oval Office by Annie Leibovitz and shows the president in his shirt sleeves. To be sure, his shirt has French cuffs and he is wearing a tie -- a blue one. But he has removed his suit jacket.

"While it is always somewhat risky to read meaning into a facial expression, it would not be too much of a stretch to say that the president looks amused and mischievous, as if he is about to tell a tried-and-true joke. He is pushed away from his desk and is leaning back in his office chair. The president is some distance from his desk to accommodate the first lady, who happens to be perched on it. She is dressed in a grayish-blue suit by Carolina Herrera and is, as usual, wearing a restrained, inscrutable smile."

Hustled Away

Lloyd Grove writes in his New York Daily News gossip column: "Until he abruptly quit last month -- around the time that President Bush nominated his stepfather, White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, to be U.S. attorney general -- Web designer Jared Freeze worked as a consultant for notorious pornographer Larry Flynt."

The Most Fascinating Karl Rove

Barbara Walters the other night unveiled her choice for the most fascinating person of 2004. Karl Rove.

Dana Stevens writes in Slate: "Walters' interview with Rove, like all the rest, was about as hard-hitting as the warm-up questions asked before a polygraph test: 'Are you Karl Rove?' 'Yes.' 'Correct!' But it nonetheless gave the viewer some glimpse of what drives the notoriously ruthless Republican strategist. He describes his childhood as a miniature policy wonk, chuckling, 'I was a very weird child. . . . I mean, talk about a sad little guy.' Rove campaigned for Richard Nixon at the age of 8 and wrote fifth-grade research papers about 'dialectical materialism.'" (Read: Young Karl was writing anti-Communist screeds, yet another throwback to the '80s.)"

Here's how the segment on Rove opened:

Walters: "The President has nicknamed you 'boy genius.' You're often referred to as "Bush's brain." But I understand the President has another nickname for you that's not quite as appealing."

Rove: "Yes. Turd blossom."

Walters: "Turd blossom. So attractive. What does it mean?"

Rove: "Well, it's a Texas phrase. In the west Texas plains, wild flowers will spring up through nature's natural fertilizer, shall we say."

Later in the interview:

Walters: "What do you think your reputation is?"

Rove: "Evil Rasputin."

Walters: "Really?"

Rove: "Right. But -- look, Washington works that way. You have to sort of pick somebody out of the crowd and, you know, sort of give them labels. There's nothing I can do about it."

Walters concludes: "Call him a Republican hero or Rasputin, Karl Rove is, perhaps, the second-most powerful man in the nation. And for us, he is definitely the most fascinating person of 2004."

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