The lead editorials of both the New York Times and the Washington Post panned Chimpy’s SOTU today.
The Times was most critical, and also refused to relabel “privatization” while explaining why the GOP is urging the media to do so.
Mr. Bush is going to be judged on the way he delivers on his biggest thoughts, and the first State of the Union speech of his second term is almost certainly going to be remembered for his call to stay the course in Iraq and change the course of Social Security.
On both counts, Mr. Bush fudged the most critical points. When it comes to the invasion of Iraq, everyone has already agreed that the turnout for last weekend’s election was very encouraging – though we can’t really fault the president for wanting to go over it one more time.
Mr. Bush’s argument that this is a bad time to set a timetable for withdrawal obscures the very immediate need to set goals, and to make it clear to the Iraqis that the continued presence of American forces depends on their meeting those goals. His speech was yet another feel-good paean to freedom and democracy that did little to show the American people an exit strategy for United States troops, or to show the Iraqis what we expect from them next.
On the domestic front, Mr. Bush talked a lot last night about Social Security without ever saying much beyond the fact that he wants to see it privatized – a word the president no longer uses because polls showed that the American people reacted badly to the concept. Mr. Bush now likes the term “wise and effective reform.” Like his rhetoric, his proposals for Social Security continue to stress the vague and glossy.
The “reform” described by the president last night addressed the major criticisms that have been showered on the privatization plan by promising that none of the bad things would happen: no big fees, no risk from market swings, no risk that retirees would outlive their money and no fiscally irresponsible borrowing. He offered little explanation, however, of how he would accomplish all these fixes, and the new information that he did provide was unconvincing. The hostile – and unusually vocal – reaction from parts of his audience suggested the problems he will have when the program comes to Congress.
The Post drank the Kool-Aid on “personal” accounts, but still can’t swallow this speech.
LAST NIGHT’S State of the Union address was to be the moment, so the country was told, when President Bush would spell out his plans for Social Security. That turned out to be true, in part. Mr. Bush’s speech, combined with additional information put out by the White House, for the first time described the size and structure of the private retirement accounts the president envisions. But Mr. Bush and his aides offered no specifics on the more difficult question of what changes would be made elsewhere in Social Security to make the program solvent. Mr. Bush acknowledged that hard choices will have to be made. But rather than leading on that central issue, he simply offered a list of what he described as other people’s ideas. He made a persuasive case that the Social Security program needs to be put on a stronger financial footing, but he wouldn’t say how that should be done.
Mr. Bush and his aides also put out numbers that made the transitional costs of creating private accounts look artificially low, saying that the amount diverted from the Treasury during the next 10 years would be just $754 billion, including interest costs. Because the accounts would be phased in beginning in 2009, that number is misleading. And Mr. Bush made private accounts look like a no-lose proposition, saying, “Your money will grow, over time, at a greater rate than anything the current system can deliver.” That may be true for many account holders, but Mr. Bush didn’t address what would happen to those who do not fare as well.
Remarkably, almost all the world outside the greater Middle East — Russia, China, Africa, Latin America — went unmentioned. Disappointingly, so did U.S. foreign aid beyond Palestine. Those topics appeared to fall victim to Mr. Bush’s desire to refocus attention on domestic policy, an ambition that a still-dangerous world may complicate during the coming year.