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State of the Union: Instant Analysis

Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Associate Editor
Wednesday, February 2, 2005; 10:00 PM

Washington Post Associate Editor Robert G. Kaiser gave his commentary and took your questions and comments on President Bush's State of the Union speech.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Robert G. Kaiser: Robert G. Kaiser: Good evening. Tonight we've heard a State of the Union speech that puts a little meat on the bones of President Bush's second term agenda--but not much. I expected more specific proposals than we heard. Much of the rhetoric was familiar from the campaign and the president's public statements since his reelection.
Curiously, he again avoided spelling out how he would create private, personal accounts to augment Social Security--how he would pay for them, what effect they would have on traditional Social Security benefits, and more.
Even more curiously, a "senior administration official" who briefed reporters on the Social Security proposal earlier today disclosed details of the White House plan that I don't think will play well in Peoria. Most significantly, this official revealed that most or all of the earnings from new "personal" or privatized accounts will be paid not to the holder of the account, but to the government. The senior official called this a "benefit offset." It's one way to finance the creation of these private accounts, but it's going to cause quite a political stir, I think.
I recommend that you read the explanation of all this that my colleague Jonathan Weisman is writing at this moment. It will be posted here late tonight, and be available in tomorrow's Post, or on line. Weisman is doing a great job explaining the Social Security debate to our readers.
I'll answer as many questions as I can in the next hour or so, and post your comments as you send them in.


Alton, N.H.: My husband and I are in our 70's -- we have 8 married children -- 19 grandchildren - Of course we are concerned about the future of their medical care. They all work very hard and now have medical insurances, but how long will they be able to afford it? One daughter has a son with special needs -- another has two children with serious food and other allergies -- another is a single Mom. My husband and I -- combined Social Security after Medicare = $1127 out of which we pay $258 for supplemental insurance. Could you survive on this? We also worked very hard and put several of our children thru college -- others payed their own way. We did manage to put some money in savings to supplement our Social Security, but are now using some -- and it will soon run out. Then what happens to us? We never want to depend on anyone. We go without things that you would never consider giving up.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for your comment. You provide a cold dose of reality that a lot of the politicians in Washington could use. Many millions of Americans are totally dependent on Social Security, which is why blithe talk about "reforming" it by cutting future benefits or otherwise changing the fundamental Social Security contract can sound so scary to people like you. And your story is one that is repeated again and again to politicians who listen to voters--one reason why the sort of reform Bush is pushing remains, I think, a real long shot. Personally I don't expect to see it enacted. Of course I could be wrong.


Laurinburg, NC: Will the President be likely to recommend that those workers whose incomes exceed the current cut-off top income being taxed into social security have more put into social security? I have read that taxing ALL income no matter how much could keep social security solvent for many, many years through this century. This could be a more reliable solution than gambling in the stock market with private accounts. I know how risky the stock market can be as my retirement investments tanked with so many other unfortunate working Americans have experienced.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this. Yes, the economists say that if well-to-do Americans making big salaries paid the same percentage in FICA, or Social Security, tax as most of us pay on their entire salary, a large part of the Social Security "crisis" would be solved.


Washington, D.C.: Best delivery (style, pronunciation, timing, etc.) that I have seen in George Bush. Must have hired a very good public speaking coach.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for posting. I recommend, as always, that we read Tom Shales' take on the speech in tomorrow's Post. Tom's reaction to these things is always better than mine. I thought the president looked fine, but I saw quite a few holes in the speech, too, which I'll be discussing here anon...


Ardmore, Pa.: Now that the Iraqis have voted for representation, what are the chances of Washington, D.C. being able to do the same?

Robert G. Kaiser: As a native Washingtonian, I can only say, good question.


St. Louis, Mo.: What do you think of Bush's proposal on the use of more nuclear energy? What is he going to do?

Robert G. Kaiser: This is not the first time Bush has spoken in favor of more use of nuclear power. This was one item in his energy bill too, though I confess I have forgotten the specifics. But nothing concrete has been approved by Congress, and nuclear power remains very controversial.


St. Louis, Mo.: How does Bush plan to help teenagers raise their grades and education? Or is he just saying this?

Robert G. Kaiser: He wants to extend the accountability provisions of the "No Child Left Behind" law from elementary school to high school. This would mean that local school systems would face specific penalties if they fail to show steady improvement in test results of their students, among other things.


Washington, DC: Great!; Another opportunity for the Post to attempt to legitimize this increasingly criminal administration.

The Post is now cheerleading for this Social Security swindle (authored by Jerry Falwell for the purpose of doing SS in for good), as it did for the obviously disastrous Iraq War.

What is the relevant difference between this paper and the Washington Times?

And why should any self-respecting individual trust your analysis of President Bush's State of the Union?

Robert G. Kaiser: You, sir or madam, are not reading the same Washington Post that I am. What are you referring to?

I quickly found this link to a recent Post editorial on Social Security, which makes it clear that you aren't exactly paying attention to what is in the paper:


Albany, N.Y.: What do you make of the "personal" versus "private" accounts sematic battle. I see that your earlier posts have leaned in both directions. Will this battle be settled by such small -- but potentially crucial details?

Robert G. Kaiser: As we've reported, pollsters have discovered that voters are made nervous by the term "privatization of Social Security." So, in the spirit of this plastic age we live in, promoters of changes in Social Security decided to change the terminology they themselves introduced, and refer now to "personal accounts."

Significantly, the senior administration official who briefed today on details of the White House plan on Social Security did make clear that thinking of them as "private" would be a mistake. The governmetn will control the money, the citizen will have narrow choices as to where to invest it, and the government will retain the first three percent per year of all earnings the money accrues (this being the interest paid on the Treasury Bills now in the Social Security trust fund).


Washington, D.C: I heard today that the "cut off" age is 55. I am 55 now, 56 in April. I am very confused. Does this mean I get a choice -- or can keep my Social Security "AS IS", which I prefer.

Robert G. Kaiser: He said anyone 55 or older will get the same benefits they ahve been paying for, and expecting, until now. Having said that as clearly as he did, I think you can probably assume that your Social Security won't be changed. Of course, there could be alterations in the way future benefits are calculated, but that has always been the case.


Washington, D.C.: What do you think was the worst line of the night?

Robert G. Kaiser: I rarely deal in Worsts or Bests. Sorry.


Washington, D.C.: While watching the state of the union, it is my personal opinion that this speech by President Bush is one of his best yet. He handled himself with confidence and integrity, and I admire that. I am a firm supporter of President Bush, the United States of America, the American people, and the values which so dearly strive for. Speaking from the viewpoint of a "couch correspondent," this is the type of speech, and this is the type of leader I like to see leading us for the next four years. Americans want to see a leader who represents them with integrity, honor, and realism. My question for you is, how can we continue to eliminate the barrier between those which we have elected to lead our great country, and those that follow that lead? I believe President Bush is one of the best at this daunting task, but at the same time, I still believe great strides could be made.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for posting. As will be clear from the comments of other readers that I will soon be posting, your view is far from unanimously held! Bush is just as polarizing a leader tonight as he has been for the last two years. His approval rating is 50% or lower in the polls, lower than that of any newly re-elected second-term president in our history. As I thought he made clear again tonight, he is comfortable with this status. At least he isn't prepared to make any changes in his fundamentally combative approach to all the controversial issues of our time. And as your comment makes clear, this suits a lot of his constituents. But only about half of them.


Washington, D.C.: As a journalist, are you alarmed when a politician won't explain what he's really proposing?

Robert G. Kaiser: I can't say that I am. If I were, I'd have long since succumbed to an overdose of alarm.


Washington, D.C.: Very well written speech. Too bad that I don't believe that the President actually means what it seemed to say. Still feel that he is more interested in the privileged and rich of our country, making them more privileged and richer.

Robert G. Kaiser: Here's one example of the other view of Bush...


Lafayette, La.: I couldn't stand to watch- Bush's propaganda infuriates me even more when I can actually see him speak.. Please give me your opinion as to what he said that would calm my fears about social security. I am 52 years old and am afraid that when it is finally my turn, Bush and his neo-con warriers will have destroyed all vestiges of the social security program as we now know it so that no benefits will be available to me.

Robert G. Kaiser: Here's another.

As to your request for reassurance, I can only say this: making significant changes in Social Security, especially changes that appear to take away benefits that workers have long been counting on, would in my view be the height of political folly, and I do not expect to see it happen. No, I can't guarantee that I'll be right about this, and my record shows that I can often be confident about things that, to put it gently, turn out to be wrong. But I am confident this time that any changes Congress ultimately makes in Social Security will be quite modest.


Washington, D.C.: Anything he said strike you as objectively untrue?

Robert G. Kaiser: Yes. Bush often describes a world whose features are all highly debatable, if not simply invented. He proposes "a comprehensive health care agenda" that will leave perhaps 50 million Americans without health insurance. Is that comprehensive in any meaningful sense? He promises big economic benefits from legal changes, "tort reform," that independent economists say cannot have more than a small economic effect even if enacted, which is not likely. He promises to increase the size of Pell Grants, not noting that they have shrunk far below the level he promised when he came into the White House. He proposes to reduce American dependency on foreign supplies of energy, when independent specialists say that as long as we need oil, we will be heavily, and increasingly, dependent on foreign suppliers. Bush spoke of a free and sovereign Iraq as though all was well there, but Iraq is a country in terrible straits, with most uncertain prospects. Bush didn't invent the rosy scenario approach to politics, of course. There's a lot of tradition behind this kind of wishful rhetoric.


Arlington, Va.: 1. Do you think his proposal not to cut benefits for anyone over 55 will defang the efforts of his largest opponent, AARP?

2. I know you don't write the headlines for the chats, but perhaps the WP online staff could avoid the phrase "instant analysis"? It's a bit of an oxymoron. Perhaps "instant commentary"?

And thanks for the chat. Yours are dependably interesting.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. I endorse your suggestion about avoiding that oxymoronic term "instant analysis." I'll talk to the editors about it.

No, I don't think the rhetoric of tonight's speech will assuage AARP, especially after they see what the "senior official" had to say today about the Bush plan.


Washington, D.C.: Do you think that the President, in renweing his call for a Constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, will himself push harder for the proposal (will he prioritize it anytime in the next four years), or was his reiteration of support a bone thrown to the Christian Right?

Robert G. Kaiser: It was a bone. When my colleagues who cover the White House interviewed Bush last month, they gave him a clear invitation to say he would really be pushing for this amendment to the Constitution. Instead he noted the opposition to it in Congress, and conveyed the clear impression that he wouldn't be trying to overcome it. I hope we can link to that interview here.

washingtonpost.com: Transcript of Bush Interview (Post, Jan. 16)


San Antonio, Tex.: Cokie Roberts of ABC News said the spontaneous hug during the State of the Union address between the Iraqi woman who voted in the election and Mrs. Norwood, the mother of the soldier killed in the battle for Fallujah, was a "goose-bump moment." I found the hug to be spontaneous, but I thought the juxtaposition of these two women was quite contrived and plastic.

Are our memories too short? Wasn't Bush's rationale for launching the war in the first place to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction? Now the rationale has completely changed--it is now to spread democracy and voting rights to Iraq. I felt no goose bumps, just a sense of being emotionally manipulated. What's your take on this TV moment, Robert?

Too, shoudn't some of the federal budget cuts be in military spending, rather than cuts in non-military programs such as health care and education? We certainly have a surfeit of bases here in Alamo City, half of which could be shuttered to eliminate duplicity within the military infrastructure.

Robert G. Kaiser: I cry in movies, but can't remember any political speech that provoked a tear. And not tonight's.


Washington, D.C.: This is the first SOTU in memory that featured catcalls and boos from the opposing party. I thought I was watching the British Parliament on C-SPAN. There appears to be a lot of tension and fragility among Democrats, and certainly strong emotion about the viability of the current Social Security program. But how surprising was it to you to see that level of emotion vocalized during the speech?

Robert G. Kaiser: Not surprised. We are in for some real battles in these four years. I think the Democrats will surprise themselves, even, by the way they oppose Bush this time around.

But I could be wrong!


Albany, N.Y.: What responsibility does the Post and other outlets have to detail the semantics and their originators? By what standard do you (meaning the Post) decide which term to use, as they might both be plausibly correct yet have different political impacts?

Robert G. Kaiser: Good question. We don't have ironclad rules, but try, on an ad hoc basis, to use common sense. Len Downie, our editor, recently sent out a memo asking that we use the word "reform" with care, especially when describing changes in things like Social Security that may not be "improvements" at all. The word reform does, according to my dictionary, imply improvement. Here's the first definition of the word:
"To make better by removing faults and defects."


Minneapolis, Minn.: Do you see the marriage amendment passing this year? With everything else going on do you feel the President will put any weight behind his words to push this through?

Robert G. Kaiser: No, and no.


Frostburg, Md.: Bush refered to the "interm government" in Iraq. If these eleced people are good anough to draft a new constitution, why will they be replaced within the year?

Robert G. Kaiser: Unfair question, I'd say. You know that the interim government was not elected; it will be replaced, according to the plan, with one that is elected.


Ashland, Mo.: Since the President said he was open to suggestions on how to change Social Security, perhaps the senior administration official is merely floating a trial balloon or doesn't know what he or she is talking about. Why do you print stories from such people? Why do you assume they are accurate?

Robert G. Kaiser: I think you misunderstand. This was a briefing organized by the White House to explain the details behind the generalities in the speech. This was an official explanation of the plan.


Middle Park, Victoria Australia: G'day, I thought the tribute to the parents and the hug near the end of the speech was very powerful. Does the White House solicit these letters or do people send them to the president unprompted? These personal touches are rarely done in major political speeches here in Australia.

Robert G. Kaiser: This goes back to Ronald Reagan in the early '80s. I don't think the White House has to solicit the stuff; they get all kinds of expressions of sentiment in the mail, and can probably choose what they need.

I'll be curious to see how the hugs play out in the days ahead. Some may consider that those parents were ill used as political props, while others will agree with you. If history is a guide, when Bush does soemthing of this kind, the country divides 50-50 on it.


Washington, D.C.: I'm glad that the older generations of Americans writing in are so in touch with THEIR concerns, and I certainly understand them. However, for those of just entering the work place for whom lower benefits are a mathematical certainty without some changes do you see a chance for some reform or with it be an all or nothing ideological fight? Do you anticipate the Democrats putting forward a reform plan or simply attacking any plan the President puts forward and continuing to pretend there is no problem?

Robert G. Kaiser: Good question. Remember every time you hear a politician talk about the system's bankruptcy, or crisis, or predicts that it won't be able to pay benefits, that politician is implying that the government will, for the first time in American history, simply default on its obligations. Those obligations are the formal IOU's the Treasury has put in the Social Security trust fund--IOU's that promise to repay the billions in Social Security tax revenues that the government has "borrowed" to pay for its ordinary operating costs for decades.
Avoiding the costs of government is now a reflex for presidents and Congresses. President Bush repeated it last night when he said, "we must not jeopardize our economic strength by increasing payroll taxes," another way of saying, we must not pay for what we owe our seniors if that means adding slightly to the FICA tax (an increase of less than 2 percent would solve the problem, experts say). Would that really "jeopardize our economic strength," or would it be an honest way to pay obligations that Congresses and Presidents have freely incurred over many, many years?

I would hope, as the father of two daughters who are members of your generation, that over the next few years, common sense will prevail, and there will be modest modifications to Social Security that will keep it alive for them, and for you. But this is far from guaranteed, especially in our polarized political environment.


Washington, D.C.: What about the economy?

Robert G. Kaiser: Another good question. Our economy is growing, and interest rates have remained low; we do have the healthiest economy, for the short term, of any western democracy, as Bush said tonight.

But...When George W. Bush took office in 2001, the national debt was $5.8 trillion and beginning to shrink. The budget was in surplus--revenues exceeded expenditures. That was then. Now the debt is rising at the sobering pace of nearly $2 billion a day. Our national debt is now about $7.5 billion. The dollar has lost nearly half its value compared to the Euro, and about half that much against other leading currencies. Because the budget deficit is now out of control and our trade deficit keeps growing despite the low dollar, which should make it easier to export our products, there is no visible prospect of a stronger dollar in our future. These are all painful facts, but they are facts.

What effect they will have on the economy remains to be seen, but they will have some effect, and it is most unlikely to be positive.


Chicago, Ill.: Why is Bush so quick to reassure anyone 55 and older that his or her social security will remain the same, but is trying to scare those of us who are in our twenties into embracing this restructuring? I still don't understand how privatizing social security is a good thing, and I don't think the president explained it tonight. Am I missing something?

Robert G. Kaiser: If you are, I am too.


Falls Church, Va.: I am in my mid-twenties. Ever since I understood the issue, I've never had any intention of collecting any Social Security benefits -- I've always assumed it would be long gone by the time I retired, and I plan accordingly. (Most people I know my age feel the same way.) Any plan that has a chance of actually returning some of that money to me gets my support. I think this plan has that chance.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for posting. I've heard others your age say this a lot, and I confess it baffles me, for a reason I mentioned earlier. Do you really think some future U.S. government is going to simply walk away from its entirely legal obligations to pay Social Security benefits to those who have paid into the system? There would be no precedent for such a default by the U.S. government, long considered the most reliable creditor on Earth, literally. Such a default would jeopardize the nation's entire financial structure.

Now admittedly, to avoid it, some future Congresses and Presidents are going to have to revert to what was once a fundamental American commitment to balance the federal budget. And that will mean raising some taxes. We have today the lowest taxes of any industrialized country (and, yes, the highest rates of productivity and growth, which can't be denied). But in my view we could afford to live within our means, and make good on our promises, as we always have in the past, without destroying the economy.


Bowie, Md.: My question is rather simple, but one I've always wondered about: Does a President memorize the entire State of the Union speech, or are there teleprompters somewhere? I've hardly seen a President even glance at his paper. Inqiring minds...

Robert G. Kaiser: teleprompters surround the podium, and every modern president reads the speech from them.


New Philadelphia, Ohio: Do you consider the references to Africa, Saudi Arabia, Lebonon, and Syria, subtle threats? And the bold reference to Iran an out-right threat?

Robert G. Kaiser: I didn't hear them that way.


Cleveland, Ohio: I lived in the UK when Maggie Thatcher instituted the privatization of parts of the provident Fund and relinquinshes Governement's semi ownership in British Airways as well as BP. The provident Fund's transformation proved disasterous till today. With this in mind isen't the president playing with peoples lives by suggesting such privatization of SS, Experience ane precedence should be the best teacher here.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. The Post will be reporting on the British and Chilean experiences with privatized social security-like pension plans in the weeks ahead. Neither example is likely to impress skeptics like yourself.


Athens, OH: I'm not up to snuff on most of the details of the personal accounts, but do you see anything wrong with the government narrowly limiting where what is supposedly your money is to be invested? That is to say, if I were a paranoid, all government officials help out their friend type, would I be justified in thinking that the investment options they give us will be limited to packages/funds that may be directed at companies (to use a modern cliche) Haliburton? Or would the funds be so broad in terms of companies that this idea has no legitimacy?

Robert G. Kaiser: You've put your finger on one of the many pitfalls. Today's White House briefing made clear that the money would be invested in a pretty narrow range of mutual stock and bond funds. Who would decide which ones? Who would decide what those funds would invest in? Very difficult matters.


Boulder, Colo.: MR. Kaiser
The assets in the Personal Retirement Accounts will NOT be given to the government. Rather, the Social Security benefit will be reduced -- proportionately -- to reflect the reduction of Social Security taxes going into the system. That's only fair. But this offset has nothing to do with the funds that build up in the accounts. Those funds will below wholly to the workers.

Robert G. Kaiser: No, not entirely. Only the profits earned above the three percent per year figure will be retained by the individual, if I understand correctly what the Senior Administration Official said today. Read Jonathan Weisman's story tomorrow.


Takoma Park, Md.: It seemed to me that the beginning of the speech when the President mentioned the problem of increased health care costs and lack of access brought about loud enthusiastic cheers. Why isn't this the 'crisis' of the moment instead of the trumped up 'crisis' in Social Security?

Robert G. Kaiser: Very good question. Personally I think our politicians are playing with fire by ignoring what is a huge and growing health care crisis for scores of millions of Americans.


North Brunswick NJ: The young people who I socialise with are excited about the private acount. Most of us have some experience of investing as a generation. But the press Washington Post and NYT have already declared it is not going to work. Thank god most of our generation does not depend primarily on newspaers like yours.

Robert G. Kaiser: OK, but what ARE you going to depend on?


Alexandria, Va.: Your cynicism is showing through right now...sounds like you had figured out what you didn't like about the speech before it was delivered.

Its always amusing when journalists speak of politicians needing to get beyond the beltway -- or get a dose of reality. Sometimes journalists do too.

The post debate spin is calling this one a big hit, as is CBS News's insta poll. You might want to tone your negative message and let people decide for themselves...

Robert G. Kaiser: Hey, my job is to try to deal with the substance, not with the impressions made or not made, which I never get right anyhow.


Honolulu, Hawaii: You asked yourself: Do you really think some future U.S. government is going to simply walk away from its entirely legal obligations to pay Social Security benefits to those who have paid into the system?

I say: Let us invest it in a way of OUR/MY chosing! Not the way government choses for us! We don't live in the Soviet Union!Living under the Democrats is close!

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for posting. As someone who lived in the Soviet Union for three years (as the Post's correspondent), I'd have to challenge your analogy. But I take your point.


Arlington, Va.: Bob, I have to question your impartiality when you comment on the decline in the economy under Bush's first term without mentioning the stock market crash (which began to slide before he was elected) or September 11th. It seems disingenuous to make these negative comments on the economy without giving it just a tad of historical perspective.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for the comment. I hope I didn't imply that all the bad stuff that has happened can be blamed entirely, and personally, on Bush. I certainly don't believe that. But a lot of bad stuff really has happened, and it is worrisome, I think, that the politicians so often want to ignore it.


Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C.: What is the rationale of the Post to not disclos the identity other 'unnamed' admininstration official who briefed the press on the Social Security this afternoon?

I have seen it reported in the blogs that the briefer was Dan Bartlett. Why does the Post facilitate the propaganda blitz?

Robert G. Kaiser: That's the wrong name. We hate this even more than you do, but our choice is often--as it was today--leave the briefing, or accept the administration's ground rules. I do believe our readers are better served by hearing what the top official says the substance of the social Security program will be, even if we cannot identify the official.


Washington, D.C.: How come the Pres. doesn't have to include such basic things as the size of the national debt in the state of the union?

If this were really an "ownership society", then a CEO reporting to the investors would not be able to gloss over basic numbers with platitudes and generalities, would he? Why don't reporters ask the President to state the basic numbers the way they ask CEO's to do?

Robert G. Kaiser: This will be the last question tonight, and I admit that I like it. The state of the union in fact is only tangentially the subject of the State of the Union Address, in this or any recent administration. In fact this is one of the handfull of occasions during th eyear when a substantial proportion of the population engages with our civic and public life, listens to the president, thinks about his program and proposals, etc. In my view that's a good thing; indeed, I wish we had a lot more civic activism than we do. But your point is a fair one. All modern presidents have seen this speech as first of all an opportunity to build political support for...themselves.

Thanks to all for taking part.


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