President Tackles The Third Rail

US President George W. Bush over US Social Security card, 2005/2/2 AP

Dotty Lynch is the Senior Political Editor for CBS News. E-mail your questions and comments to Political Points

George W Bush has touched Social Security, the third rail of American politics and is still alive and walking around Fargo. The CBS News poll of Americans who watched the State of the Union address found that 80 percent approved of the president's proposals in general and 56 percent said they think allowing individuals to invest their Social Security is a good idea. Only 44 percent of these viewers believed that a week ago.

The president has taken a big risk and decided to use his political capital to tackle an issue his campaign knew could be radioactive. Last fall, when Ron Suskind reported in The New York Times magazine that Bush had told a group of supporters, "I am going to come in strong after my swearing in . . . with fundamental tax reform, tort reform, privatizing of Social Security," the Bush campaign went into overdrive. They called it a made-up quote from a reporter hostile to the administration and said that the president would never privatize the system.

Of course, he is not proposing privatizing the entire system but that quote looks pretty darn accurate in light of Wednesday's speech. Many Republicans, especially those who have to run again, are very nervous about the political fallout. But the president has forged into some very red states – North Dakota, Nebraska, Montana, Arkansas and Florida – to try to bring not only Republicans but some moderate Democratic senators on board.

Bush has been talking about Social Security reform since his campaign for Congress in 1978. To help make the case that Bush is hyping a crisis, Democrats trotted out a quote from that campaign in which he predicted that Social Security would go broke by 1988 if people were not given the ability to invest their money. Taking on Social Security is high risk but many believe that it is part of a bold, conservative agenda to transform government and woo young people into the fold with the promise of the ownership society.

In an age of risk-averse politics, Bush's willingness to try to lead on this controversial issue is to be applauded. Political courage is rare but courage alone doesn't make good policy. Two days after the election, which he won on the issue of handling terrorism, he said he would spend his political capital, not on working on a long-term strategy for containing international terrorism, but on Social Security. The issue ranks far below others as one the American people want fixed, and way below others as an imminent threat.

Democrats are pressing this point, especially on health care. But it was terrorism, not these domestic issues, on which he campaigned and for which has a mandate to lead. .

The Atlantic has published a chilling memo written by Dick Clarke, former national coordinator for counter-terrorism in the Clinton and Bush administrations, which outlines a series of frightening scenarios which he believes can be avoided without sacrificing our civil liberties, if we act now.

Jim Fallows then puts forward a "containment strategy" for the age of terror, which he believes could have the same impact as the set of "principles which allowed America to win the cold war." He contends that homeland security policies have been a waste of money and sets out a framework for developing a strategy.

Fallows calls on the president to lead by laying out some hard truths. (Sound familiar?) He says there are sensible answers on how to contain terrorism but that leaders are reluctant to present these answers. One particularly arresting insight he has is that while we live in danger we don't have to live in fear. We need mechanisms to control and conquer these fears.

The president has a lot on his plate. He is taking a political risk in putting Social Security squarely on the agenda and he has initiated a big national debate on a difficult issue. But there are many other big pressing issues, maybe none bigger than terrorism. Let us hope the president, and not the terrorists, puts it back on the country's agenda.

  • Joel Roberts

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