President brings his forum to Alabama

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 14, 2005

"W" was here, and so were some 5,000 people who trekked to Auburn University Montgomery Thursday afternoon for a town hall visit with President George W. Bush.

An enthusiastic crowd greeted the country's chief executive in the physical education building on the Montgomery campus and the President, who spent some time in the Capital City during his National Guard days, didn't disappoint.

Bush quickly cozied up to the partisan crowd by mentioning some well-known Montgomery landmarks and even showed reverence to Hank Williams Sr. in his opening remarks.

Bush was in town to talk about the need to reform Social Security and his plan to allow those under age 55 to put part of their Social Security wages into private investment accounts tied to the stock market.

Bush's trip to Alabama is part of his current 60-day, 60-city town hall tour.

"We're going to talk about Social Security and there's no better place to do it than on a college campus," said Bush, who was often interrupted by applause during the 45-minute meeting.

"Because college kids need to pay attention to this issue, and I think you'll know what I mean after I've finished talking."

He said Social Security was an issue he campaigned on during his successful bid for a second term, and that is used as a fear tactic by some.

"Social Security was used in a lot of campaigns to frighten people," he said.

"You know, well, if he's talking about reform, that means a senior is not going to get his check. But I'm talking about it because I believe the job of a President is to confront problems and not pass them on to future generations and future presidents."

The President spoke about the panelists with him, mostly made up of grandparents and their grandchildren.

The White House called it "Seniors and Seniors," which referred to senior citizens and college seniors.

"We've got a granddad and a grandson, a granddad and granddaughter," he said. "And the reason I've asked them to join us is because this is a generational issue we're talking about. Social Security is a vital system, and Franklin Roosevelt did a good thing in putting it in place. It provides a safety net for a lot of citizens, and it worked for a lot of years. But it's not going to work in the out years because the math has changed."

He called Social Security "a pay-as-you-go system."

"Money goes in and money goes out," he said. " There's no such thing, by the way, as a Social Security trust. Some people probably think that the government has taken your payroll taxes and held it for you and then when you retire, they give it back to you. That's not what happens. The government takes your money and spends it on other things and puts an IOU, a piece of paper, on your behalf, which may be worth something, and it may not be worth something."

Bush pointed out that the "baby boomer" generation is approaching retirement age and that it is going to put a strain on the Social Security funds.

"The baby boomers are getting ready to retire," he said. "And there's a lot of us. And we're living longer years than before. And that's good. It's good that we have a healthier society…So start thinking about the math: more people, living longer, getting greater benefits, and fewer people paying."

In the president's view, there lies the problem.

"You've got fewer people paying into the system. And the system, which was a great system, now needs to be modernized because if we don't, the money going out will be greater than the money coming in starting in 2018, and it just perpetually declines. Our government can't afford that."

He said the reason is that baby boomers will retire and fewer people will pay into the system.

He said the system will start operating in the red in 2018 and by 2029, there will be a $200 million shortage.

"So you've got younger workers paying in but the government isn't being able to make its promise," he said.

"And that's the problem. And it's a problem we've got to address, because the closer we come to 2018, when it starts in the red, the harder it is to solve the problem."

The president mentioned the "safety net" put in place by President Ronald Reagan and Congress in 1983.

He said the plan was supposed to work for at least 75 years.

"Well, it didn't last very long, did it?" he asked to a thunderous applause.

Like Reagan before him, Bush called on Congress to step up and find a solution to the problem before the 2019 deadline.

"I'm saying to the members of the United States Congress, let's fix this system permanently, no Band-Aids," he said.

"Let's do our duty. And I believe that when this debate gets moving hard and people get educated about the realities of Social Security, woe be to the politician who doesn't come to the table and try to come up with a solution. There's too much politics in Washington, D.C. People need to negotiate in good faith. People in both political parties need to come together and fix this for the sake of America, first and foremost"

The president said the plan he proposes is a simple one.

Let those who pay in invest their money in low-risk stocks and bonds.

"If you're a worker who has made $35,000 over your lifetime, and the government says you can set aside 4 percent of your payroll taxes into a personal account, and you invest in safe and secure stocks and bonds, by the time you retire, your personal savings account will be worth $250,000," he said. "And that's yours. If you've averaged more money over your lifetime, the money goes up exponentially. And it's your money. It's your money you can retire on. But if Social Security is just a part of your retirement package, and you feel comfortable, it's your money you can give to your children or your grandchildren."

Dr. Jeff Brown, an Auburn University finance professor, joined the President on stage and talked about the importance of fixing the problem.

"And so what we need to do is think about ways to change the system to help us individually, as well as a country, to save more, because when we all save more, it's not just ourselves that benefit from that, but the economy benefits." Brown said. "When there's more savings, there's more investment. When there's more investment, people's wages go up. So changing the system to make it more of an investment-based system can really be good for the long-term."

Bush said Brown described the solution perfectly.

"Yes, you understand what he's saying about this," he said. "There's a macro-economic effect when we encourage savings. When there are savings available, it means capital is available. And capital is what fuels the growth of small businesses. Capital is what fuels productivity increases. Capital is what makes a capitalist society work."

The president spoke to the other panelists about their thoughts on Social Security and then finished up the meeting.

"The people of this country are going to start calling up the congressmen and women and saying, we have got a problem; why are you waiting? he said.

"We have got a problem and we expect you in good faith to work with the White House to come up with a solution so we can say to our grandchildren, this system, the safety net will be there for you. The safety net has been great for a lot of folks, but it's got a hole in it. And now is the time for people who've run for office to serve our country to come together and fix that hole for generations to come."

Following the meeting the President shook hands with the crowd and signed a few autographs, then left the facility and returned to Maxwell Air Force Base where he boarded Air Force One headed to Tennessee where he was expected to spend the night before taking his message to the people of Memphis.

The president's plan is not without its critics.

The AARP currently is running a media blitz encouraging its members to call their Congressional leaders and demand that Social Security remain untouched.

The large national lobbyist group said the formula the president is using is tough for many to understand.

"The Bush proposal uses a complicated formula that basically reduces traditional Social Security benefits for workers who choose private accounts," says Alison Shelton, AARP senior policy adviser. "Those workers must earn more than 3 percent on their private account investments to have a total benefit greater than the traditional benefit."

AARP CEO Bill Novelli says Social Security can be strengthened by a series of "fixes"-such as investing part of the money in higher-yielding stocks or bonds or raising the cap for the portion of income subject to Social Security taxes from today's 83 percent to what it used to be: 90 percent.

"The system," Novelli says, "doesn't have to be dismantled."

The latest AARP survey found that a majority of all Americans agree. Two-thirds support keeping Social Security as close to the current system as possible.