There was not much news in George W. Bush’s fourth primetime press conference. He acknowledged he could do nothing much about the high price of gas except to plead with the Saudis and other oil producers to boost production. He predictably called on Congress to pass an energy bill that would lead to more drilling and an expansion of nuclear power. While paying lip service to conservation, he only referred to developing technology that would save energy; he did not mention changing consumption patterns.
On Social Security, Bush stuck with privatized accounts, but he also advocated–in the only substantial news of the evening–means-testing cost of living adjustments for Social Security benefits, raising the prospect of real cuts for a majority of future beneficiaries. He tried to sugarcoat this hard-to-swallow news two way. First, he vowed that future recipients will receive benefits equal or greater to those being handed out today. But that was spin, for this carefully constructed explanation ignored the need to boost benefits to keep pace with inflation. Equal benefits would mean reduced benefits in real terms. Second, he suggested those who opt for a private account would end up making enough to compensate for the cuts, but polls show that a majority of Americans do not buy this argument. It may make policy sense–though not political sense–to turn Social Security into an outright welfare program: benefits for those who need them, less or none for the well-off. But Bush’s vague proposal won’t sell on Capital Hill or beyond. How many Republicans are eager to snatch benefits from middle- or high-income Americans? Minutes after Bush finished, Senator Sam Brownback, a conservative Republican from Kansas, was asked whether he would support a sliding scale for cost of living increases in Social Security benefits, and he said, “I don’t think that’s the route we ought to be going.”
So with the two free throws Bush had before the questioning began, he failed to score. And during the course of the hour-long press conference, he misled the public on several key facts.
In discussing Social Security, Bush once more said that come 2041 the program will be “bankrupt.” That makes it sound as if there will be no money available for retirees. At that point in time–or, according to estimates produced by the Congressional Budget Office, in 2051–the program will be able to give retirees 70 percent of the scheduled benefits. That’s a problem, but it’s not bankruptcy. Bush also repeated another false factoid about Social Security, claiming that “every year we wait” to reform Social Security it costs an additional $600 billion. As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and others–including the American Academy of Actuaries– have pointed out, this is a phony number. The actuaries noted that when members of the public hear such a figure they are likely to “be misled into believing that the program’s financial situation is deteriorating and the cost of restoring actuarial balance is increasing, even if this is not the case.”