President brings reform message to Mississippi

Published 5:00 am Wednesday, May 4, 2005

CANTON – President Bush brought his Social Security reformmessage to the Magnolia State on Tuesday, telling an audience ofNissan auto plant workers that those in office today must shore upthe system for future generations.

Flanked by signs reading “Strengthening the Social SecuritySafety Net,” the president, who in recent weeks has criss-crossedthe country touting the idea of voluntary individual accounts,leaned less on that part of his proposal during his appearance andinstead shifted his focus toward convincing current retirees andsoon-to-retire baby boomers that they cannot forget the long-termneeds of their children and grandchildren.

“I see a problem with Social Security, and I believe I have aduty to talk about the problem and talk about the solution,” Bushtold the approximately 2,000 people in attendance, including morethan 1,000 Nissan workers at the plant, which assemblessports-utility vehicles, trucks, cars and minivans.

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But the Social Security program is sound for today’s seniorcitizens and those nearing retirement age, the president said, andhe sought to reassure them that their benefits would not betouched.

“If you’re getting a Social Security check today, you’re goingto keep getting a check,” Bush said. “Nobody is going to take thatcheck from you.”

But the president said the financial stability of the program isfading fast.

“People are beginning to say, ‘I’m more likely to see a UFO thana Social Security check’ if they’re 35 and under,” Bush said.

By 2027, the president said, Social Security will be $200billion a year in the red, and by 2030, that deficit will rise to$300 billion a year.

“In 2041, it’s bankrupt. It’s out,” Bush said. “A lot of youngerworkers our there will be paying into a system that’s bankrupt, andthat’s not fair.”

The president said his Social Security reform plan would breathenew life into the program by giving younger workers the option totake greater ownership of their future. He compared his proposedoptional personal accounts to individual retirement accounts and401(k)s, which allow workers some flexibility to invest a portionof their money as aggressively or conservatively as they see fitwithin the program’s limitations.

“You spread the idea of ownership beyond the so-called investorclass,” Bush said, “and I think that’s a good idea. … I wantpeople to say, ‘This is mine. I worked hard for this.'”

Cynthia Roberts, a human resource representative at Nissan’sCanton plant and one of five individuals chosen to participate onstage in the president’s conversation on Social Security, spokehighly of her experience with a 401(k) savings plan.

The young mother, asked by Bush how her conservatively invested401(k) has fared, said it “has grown substantially.”

Bush said much like a 401(k), the personal portion of SocialSecurity taxes could be directed into specific stocks andbonds.

“She gets to design the portfolio that meets her needs,” Bushsaid of Roberts’ retirement plan. “Doesn’t that make sense?”

The president then asked the audience, “Does anyone else have a401(k)?” to which he was answered with thunderous applause, raisedhands and whistles.

“I rest my case,” Bush said.

Without the changes to Social Security he has proposed, thepresident said, there are only two alternatives: massive taxincreases or drastic benefit cuts.

That contention was backed by Sam Beard, president of EconomicSecurity 2000, a nonpartisan grassroots organization dedicated toreforming Social Security, who also joined Bush on stage.

“Without reform, you either raise (Social Security) taxes 50percent or you cut benefits by one-third,” Beard said. “That is theonly choice.”

Although Bush’s Social Security reform proposal has run intostiff opposition by Democrats, Beard – himself a Democrat – pointedout that Bush’s reform plan is not so different from one floated byformer President Clinton in 1999 and supported at the time by suchwell-known Democratic officials as former Sens. Daniel PatrickMoynihan of New York, John Breaux of Louisiana and Charles Robb ofVirginia.

“Think of it as the Bush/Clinton proposal,” Beard said.

Bush urged congressional leaders to drop the partisanship and dowhat’s good for the American people rather than what may benefitone political party or another.

“How about coming together to solve this?” he asked.

Bush said reforming the Social Security system would be a wayfor politicians to “show the American people that Washington isn’tall about politics.”

“When we get it done,” the president said, “we will all be ableto say that we have done our duty.”