President Bush, pushing an ambitious domestic agenda in his second term, is calling on Congress to revamp the Social Security system this year to allow workers under age 55 to invest retirement money in the stock market and other "personal accounts."
In his State of the Union speech, scheduled to be delivered tonight starting at 9 p.m. Eastern time before a joint session of Congress, Bush will offer details of a plan to head off what he says is a looming crisis facing the venerable, 70-year-old retirement system.
Describing the system as "one of America's most important institutions" and "a symbol of the trust between generations," Bush will call for "wise and effective reform," according to excerpts of his speech released by the White House.
"Social Security . . . on its current path, is headed toward bankruptcy," he will say. "And so we must join together to strengthen and save Social Security."
According to the excerpts, he adds, "Fixing Social Security permanently will require an open, candid review of the options. . . . I will work with members of Congress to find the most effective combination of reforms."
Lawmakers who were briefed on the speech today said Bush's plan would draw a line at age 55, giving people below that age the option of investing in private retirement accounts.
Leading congressional Democrats said today they plan to take a tough line against what they describe as Bush's efforts to privatize the Social Security system. Foreshadowing the Democrats' official response to Bush's speech, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, respectively the Senate and House minority leaders, told reporters their party was willing to work with Bush to take care of Social Security's projected cash flow problems decades from now, but that they did not consider the system to be in crisis at present or in need of a major overhaul.
After the speech, Bush plans to travel to five states to stump for his plan, administration officials said. Thursday he heads to Florida, a state with a large population of retirees.
Dan Bartlett, a senior counselor to the president, said on television news shows before the speech that Bush will "go all over the country" to promote his plan and would reach out to Democrats.
"He wants as many people at the table as possible," Bartlett said on CNN. "This is not the time to draw lines in the sand. It's a time to put ideas on the table."
But he warned that Democrats may be making a mistake if they stick to the traditional axiom that Social Security constitutes an untouchable "third rail" of American politics.
"At the end of the day, those who don't confront the issue may be putting themselves in more political jeopardy than those who do," Bartlett said.
Nicolle Devenish, who recently replaced Bartlett as White House communications director, said Bush in his speech would call on Congress "to take a generational approach" to Social Security. "Doing nothing is not an acceptable option for this president," she said on CNN. She described Bush's plan for "person accounts" as part of his "deep commitment to creating an ownership society."
On other issues, Bush will use his prime-time speech to hail Sunday's elections in Iraq -- as well as earlier polls in the Palestinian territories, Ukraine and Afghanistan -- to bolster his assertion that democracy is on the march around the globe, administration officials said.
"Our generational commitment to the advance of freedom, especially in the Middle East, is now being tested and honored in Iraq," Bush will say, according to the speech excerpts. "We will succeed because the Iraqi people value their own liberty -- as they showed the world last Sunday."
Now, the United States "will increasingly focus our efforts on helping prepare more capable Iraqi security forces -- forces with skilled officers and an effective command structure," Bush will say. "We are standing for the freedom of our Iraqi friends, and freedom in Iraq will make America safer for generations to come."
More broadly, Bush will pledge over the next four years to "continue to build the coalitions that will defeat the dangers of our time."
Echoing the ambitious goals he set out in his Jan. 20 inaugural address, Bush will say in his State of the Union speech, "In the long term, the peace we seek will only be achieved by eliminating the conditions that feed radicalism and ideologies of murder. . . . The only force powerful enough to stop the rise of tyranny and terror, and replace hatred with hope, is the force of human freedom."
The speech, an annual staple of American politics, is traditionally a vehicle for the president to place his agenda before Congress and urge swift action on a number of initiatives that require federal legislation.
In that vein, officials said, Bush will also ask lawmakers to liberalize U.S. immigration laws, establishing a massive guest worker program that he says would allow many of the nation's estimated 8 million to 10 million illegal immigrants to stay in the country legally. Although he has said his plan stops short of granting amnesty, it has run into strong opposition in his own party.
In addition, the speech will call on Congress to simplify the U.S. tax code, which Bush has termed a time-consuming mess, and impose limits on medical malpractice lawsuits.