Bush Throws in the Towel on Social Security

President Bush has all but cried uncle over the prospects of congressional action on Social Security reform this year, and it’s becoming increasingly doubtful whether he’ll ever realize what he described as the top domestic priority of his second term.

Faced with crises ranging from hurricane recovery to the war in Iraq, Bush said Tuesday Social Security is “a long-term problem” and he will leave it up to Congress to determine when it should be addressed.

Bush said he will continue to raise the issue because “it’s not going away.” But he was silent on the question of a timetable for action.

White House officials have privately acknowledged that Bush’s aspiration for Social Security reform likely won’t occur during his term in office if it isn’t accomplished this year.

The administration wanted to avoid the prospect of the debate seeping into 2006 in advance of the November congressional elections, realizing GOP incumbents locked in tight re-election fights might grow faint of heart and reject the plan. By the beginning of the 110th Congress in 2007, the focus will turn to the looming presidential campaign, providing little chance of passing something as large and controversial as Social Security reform.

That’s why Bush and his staff have, until recently, been urging Republican leaders, both privately and in public, to move on reform. The drumbeat has silenced after the hurricane disasters and other political headaches, and it appears the White House is in danger of losing the issue altogether.

Even before the president’s acknowledgement, the reform measure was on shaky ground. It recently was revealed that Rep. Tom Reynolds of New York, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, recommended to House leaders that they drop plans for Social Security reform this year, citing possible repercussions on the 2006 election.

Public disaffection for the president’s plan already had led some Republican lawmakers to take a negative view. A poll conducted by Zogby International, conducted from Sept. 29 to Oct. 2, showed that 65 percent of those questioned have a negative view of the manner in which the president is handling Social Security, while only 31 percent view his actions in a positive light.

Bush consistently has sought to reshape Social Security, warning that the national retirement system is headed for a financial train wreck unless the federal government takes drastic measures. Although the system is running a surplus, the increasing number of baby boomers reaching retirement age will force Social Security to start digging into its trust funds during the next decade, and the account will be depleted somewhere around 2042.

The administration actually has provided few details about its plan, other than to say that it wants to permit young workers to divert a portion of their Social Security taxes into private, federally managed accounts.

Brad Woodhouse, communications director for Americans United to Protect Social Security, organized to oppose the president’s plan, said Bush “came as close to conceding defeat in his effort to privatize Social Security as he ever has or as he is likely to in the future.”

Bush, Woodhouse said, offered a “flawed plan and inept campaign strategy for passing it.” The president’s downward spiral in the polls _ his approval ratings are now consistently below 50 percent _ coincided with the public’s rejection of his proposal.

(Contact Bill Straub at StraubB(at)shns.com)