George Bush's primary goal at this evening's press conference -- only the fourth prime-time press event during his presidency -- is to convince Americans to go along with his plans to privatize Social Security. He's been inviting us to this ball for so long you almost feel embarrassed for the guy; the pickup lines are getting old, and we're running out of ways to let him down gently. But tonight he tries a new one. For the first time, Bush regales us with a tad more specificity. For months, he's refused to talk about how he thinks Social Security should be shored up, insisting that he doesn't want to negotiate with himself in public. Now he says he'd like to cut benefits.
Of course, Bush doesn't exactly use the words "benefit cut." That wouldn't have been prudent. But the idea he outlines is essentially a benefit cut, one in which, he says, poor people will fare better than wealthy people. The idea is similar to one called "progressive indexation," a plan first proposed by Robert Pozen, a Democratic lawyer who runs the Boston investment firm MFS Investment Management. It's actually one of the more politically feasible ideas to shore up Social Security that you can find in Washington. Instead of cutting everyone's benefits equally, progressive indexation would cut benefits progressively -- that is, low-income workers will face a smaller cut in benefits (or no cut) than high-income people.
In theory, the idea is not a terrible way to fix the long-term finances of Social Security. The problem is that as Bush plans it, it's not a real offer -- it's just a negotiating gambit. That's because Bush still wants to privatize Social Security. Once again, he says that it's crucial to allow people to divert their Social Security taxes into the stock market. But as many experts have pointed out, privatizing Social Security is tantamount to ending Social Security. As long as Bush wants privatization, the progressive indexation plan can be dismissed as nothing more than a sweetener, a way to break the unity of Senate Democrats. Let's hope they don't fall for the trick.
The other big topic tonight is gas prices. It's hard to believe Americans will be comforted by Bush's answers here. He essentially says that nothing can be done. While he exhorts the Senate to pass his energy bill, he also concedes, "the energy bill is no quick fix -- you can't wave a magic wand" to lower gas prices. What can we do? Bush says that the best way to lower prices is to ask producing nations to increase their capacity. This is what he tried to do earlier this week, in his meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, but the Saudis are already thought to be pumping at close to the limit.
Americans are probably smart enough to know that the president can't wave a magic wand to lower the price at the pump. But they probably also wanted to hear that the president was doing something about this problem, or at least that he considered the long-term energy self-sufficiency of this country an important matter. Nothing Bush says tonight supports that idea. There's nothing about fuel economy, or the wonders of new conservation technology, or the possibility of rethinking our reliance on foreign oil. Instead, Bush treats rising gas prices as a convenient political matter of the moment: I feel your pain, he says. Now please pass my unrelated corporate-giveaway legislation.
During the last four years, Bush has repeatedly insisted that his massive tax cuts would eventually lead to enormous economic growth. So what does he have to say, he's asked, about today's news that the economy grew by only 3.1 percent last quarter, the slowest pace of expansion in two years? He says things are OK. "I'm an optimistic fella," Bush says, "and that's based upon the experts that I listen to." Polls show that Americans are not quite as optimistic; most Americans believe the economy's in pretty bad shape at the moment. But Bush has an answer for this, too. "If a President tries to govern based upon polls you're kind of like a dog chasing your tail," he says.
Bush gives no ground on John Bolton, his embattled nominee for U.N. ambassador. Bolton has "been asked a lot of questions and he's given very good answers," Bush says of Bolton's contentious confirmation hearings in the Senate. What about reports that Bolton has been dismissive of subordinates, that he's a bully, that there's nothing at all diplomatic about this prospective diplomat? "John Bolton's a blunt guy," Bush jokes. "Sometimes people say I'm a little too blunt, too." Bush also reports that before he ever decided to nominate Bolton, he held an Oval Office chat with the mustachioed official and asked him point blank, "Do you think the United Nations is important?" Fortunately for us, Bolton, who's previously advocated lopping off ten stories from the U.N. plaza in New York, looked his president in the eye and said, "No, it's important. But it needs to be reformed." Bolton, Bush says, is just the guy to clean up the U.N., and the Senate needs to confirm him now.
This is how it goes with Bush for the whole hour, actually: As far as he's concerned, everyone needs to start moving to implement his plan of action for America. The Senate has to pass the energy bill. The Saudis need to pump more oil. Congress has got to take up the Social Security plan. Democrats need to allow an up-or-down vote on his judicial nominees. Kim Jong Il must agree to join the six-party talks. The Iranians have to abide by their commitments. The "hard-nosed killers" in Iraq need to realize their days are numbered. If everyone just quit whining and did what Bush said, everything would come up roses.