Tuesday, April 05, 2005

President Faces Critical Time for Social Security Reform

Some time during his arduous presidency, Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said, "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me."

For a man like Lincoln, who had climbed from the depths of poverty to wealth and who when aggrieved once consoled himself with the wifty certainties of Euclidean mathematics, this represented a massive concession.

It also represented realism. The only thing about our lives that we control is what we do, think, and say in this fleeting moment.

On Friday, President Bush will be attending the funeral of Pope John Paul II. Come Monday, the President will probably be confronted with a few fleeting moments critical for the future of his presidency and for what concerns all second-term presidents, his place in history.

At a press conference on the day after his re-election, the President framed what his second term would be about: Social Security reform. While some argue that there are other more critical, long-term issues confronting the country, the President is certainly right in arguing for the need to fix Social Security. Over the long haul, the system confronts an insolvency crisis which could bring the whole thing down like a house of cards.

But the President has been largely unsuccessful in advancing reform in the days since his election win. The foremost factor behind this perhaps, has been events. Events have a way of overtaking the agendas even of presidents with solid mandates and plenty of political capital.

In his book, Megatrends, author John Naisbitt talked about one of the methods used by intelligence functionaries during World War Two. They combed local newspapers in enemy nations. For one reason, doing so gave the intelligence community a ground-eye view of what was happening in communities all across Germany, Japan, and Italy. The combination of these smaller pieces of information created a larger picture of such things as troop movements, industrial production, and morale.

Another reason the intelligence folks did this, the reason relevant to the topic at hand, issues from the fact that the front page of a newspaper, the place where editors put the most important stories and ones most relevant to people's lives, has a finite number of column inches. At any given time, the public can only focus on so many news events or public policy questions. When a President falls off the front page or away from the first five to ten minutes on the evening television news, he cannot successfully advance his agenda.

Events have forced President Bush and his campaign for Social Security reform off the front page in spite of his far-flung travels, lobbying of Congress, and many public statements.

Of course, there is no guarantee that come Monday, events will magically cooperate with the President. But he now must try with renewed energy and probably new strategies, knowing that the clock is ticking on Social Security reform.

Second term presidents are especially susceptible to having their agendas overtaken by the clock. That's because, thanks to the Twenty-Second Amendment to the Constitution, presidents are limited to two terms or, in the case of vice presidents who succeed to the office, not more than ten years in office.

The practical implication of this, especially in the overtly superheated presidential politics of today, is that the moment a president is re-elected, he (and someday, she) is a lame duck, their pronouncements and initiatives, except in emergency circumstances, becoming increasingly irrelevant. (I say overtly because machinations for attaining the presidency have always been 365/24/7 pursuits. But the process was mostly unseen by the general public. Not so any longer, creating intense pressure on modern presidents to get things done early.)

Just look at the Republican landscape alone right now. Rudy Giuliani, George Pataky, John McCain, Chuck Hagel, Sam Brownback, and others are all being touted for the presidency in 2008. (Most are touting themselves, too.) The Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, John Edwards, and others are also soaking up the attention of press and politicos.

When one adds the press of events like tsunamis and the death of a beloved pope, it becomes very difficult for a second-term president to rouse a distracted public to support the reform of a retirement system the crisis in which is not immediate, but long-term.

So, what should the President do?

First and foremost, I think he needs to get specific. The White House still has only identified the problem--insolvency--and hinted at one possible solution for it--individual accounts, the relevance of which to the problem many Republicans don't see. The President needs to put a proposal on the table. The momentum for Social Security reform is bleeding to death from a thousand little cuts administered by folks opposed to this President or wary of offending seniors. And all these cuts come from attacks on what is an as-yet non-existent Social Security reform proposal.

As I've written here before, the President chose what appears to be a risk-averse approach to this issue. The outlines of his strategy seem to have been:
  1. Raise the need for reform; and
  2. Prompt a Republican Congress to fall into line, offering the tough proposals needed to get it passed, allowing the President to take the credit; and
  3. Above all, leave things vague enough so that the President won't get tarred with the charge that Republicans have always dreaded of wanting to destroy the Social Security system.
But the cause of reform has languished. Events have overtaken it. So has the reticence of Republican legislators to walk a plank for the President. And Democrats, seemingly on life-support following last November's election, have used the issue to rouse their base.

This President has always, rightly or wrongly, been characterized by boldness. After the disputed election of 2000, he rightly forged ahead with his administration and agenda, never doubting that he was the President in full. Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, he inspired a nation and the world. More controversially, he forged ahead with the invasion of Iraq.

He needs to display that kind of boldness now. He needs to come out with a specific set of bullet-points on Social Security reform. He can say, "As always, I'm open to the input of others. But these are the elements I believe must be part of Social Security reform and here's why."

Absent such boldness and specificity, I don't think that the President can get an increasingly distracted Congress, with the 2006 elections just around the corner, to pass any Social Security reform. And frankly, given the attention-sucking power of the 2008 presidential election and Mr. Bush's lame duck status, I think that the next few weeks represent the President's last chance to get Social Security reform, whatever its shape, passed during his presidency.

If it doesn't happen now, events are apt to overtake us.

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