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.
The personal accounts Mr. Bush advocated are intelligently structured in many ways. The requirement that workers, on retirement, use at least part of their money to buy annuities to keep them above the poverty level; the prohibition on workers withdrawing money before retiring; the default investment plan of a "lifestyle account" that would shift workers, as they age, into less risky investment blends -- all of these are sensible approaches.
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But 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.
The address was well-delivered and less of a laundry list of proposals than many of its predecessors. Mr. Bush did take pains to assuage the cultural conservative part of his base by repeating his call for a constitutional amendment to prohibit gay marriage; we preferred his commitment to increase the size of Pell grants and to bolster the legal defenses of accused criminals. The speech was also notable for the policy dogs that didn't bark or were far more muzzled than in previous years. Mr. Bush's previous clarion call to make his tax cuts permanent was reduced this year to a four-word clause. Tax reform got only a brief nod; climate change wasn't mentioned; discussion of immigration reform was limited to a restatement of his previous, dormant proposals.
Mr. Bush did not address foreign affairs until he was well past the midpoint of his speech. Reprising his inaugural pledge of a campaign for democracy in the Middle East and beyond, he described his commitment to Iraq as "firm and unchanging" and cited last weekend's elections as a demonstration that "we will succeed." He ruled out, as he should have, the "artificial timetable" for withdrawal that some Democrats have called for, while hinting at a gradual lessening of the U.S. military role during a new phase that will focus on training Iraqi forces.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, Mr. Bush promised aggressive support for Palestinian institution building, including $350 million in new aid, and described what sounded like a push for regional transformation on two tracks: confrontation with such hostile authoritarian regimes as Syria and Iran, and gentle prodding of allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. 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.