President Bush on Tuesday took the first step in a campaign to convince Congress of the need to overhaul Social Security, a top priority of his second term.
Bush told hundreds of supporters that Congress should allow younger workers to divert some of their Social Security payroll taxes into personal investment accounts similar to 401(k)s.
"I like the idea of encouraging more people to say, "I own my own home, I own my own business, I own and manage my health accounts, and now I own a significant part of my retirement account,' " he said. "Promoting ownership in America makes sense to me to make sure people continue to have a vital stake in the future of our country."
Bush spoke to five people, aged 27 to 80, from around the nation who were hand-selected to tout the importance of personal accounts in front of a standing-room only crowd.
"Families could harness the power of the capital markets to allow them to build a nest egg over the course of their lifetimes that could then be passed on to their families," said Sonya Stone, a mother of three from Washington.
Social Security is projected to start paying out more in benefits than it collects in taxes in 2018, and to pay full promised benefits only until 2042. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has projected that the program will be solvent until 2052.
The president insisted retirees and older workers would not be affected by changes. But if something isn't done now, he said, the United States will no longer have enough tax-paying workers to pay for the benefits promised to retirees.
Critics argue that Bush is exaggerating and that less dramatic changes, such as increasing payroll tax payments by upper-income workers or changing how benefits are calculated, would be enough to fix any future problems.
"There is a challenge here, not a crisis," said Rep. Sander Levin, a Democrat from Michigan. "We're not going to let propaganda run the day."
Bush and his supporters will embark on a series of similar meetings around the nation. Other speeches are scheduled by Vice President Dick Cheney; Treasury Secretary John Snow; Josh Bolten, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget; and Gregory Mankiw, chairman of the president's Council of Economic Advisers.
The president is trying to persuade the Republican-controlled Congress to implement the biggest changes to Social Security in 22 years, but a major battle is expected. Rep. Allen Boyd of Panama City is one of few House Democrats in favor of overhauling Social Security.
"The problem is that some in Congress don't see it as the problem," Bush said. "They just kind of think that maybe things will be okay. But the structure of Social Security is such that you can't avoid the fact that there is a problem. And now is the time to get something done."
Anita Kumar can be reached at 202-463-0576 or kumarsptimes.com.