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Media Forget Bush's "Aggressive" and "Partisan" 2005 State of the Union Address

February 12, 2013

With Barack Obama's 2013 State of the Union address just hours away, the media conventional wisdom machine is already busy warning about an "aggressive" and "partisan" speech from the reelected President. Despite four years of unprecedented Republican obstructionism, Politico alerted readers to beware a speech that is "less a presidential olive branch than a congressional cattle prod." Over at the Washington Post, talking point stenographer Chris Cillizza counseled the President to focus not on jobs but the deficit and avoid mentioning immigration reform, since Republicans find his association with any policy repulsive. And in the New York Times, former Bush senior policy adviser Peter Wehner alerted Americans to the heart of darkness he expects from President Obama Tuesday night:

"Since the election, he's pursued, in my estimation, a strategy that has been intentionally polarizing. What I'll be interested in is if the State of the Union speech is simply the latest link in President Obama's polarizing chain, or whether it signals a new interest in working with Republicans."

Of course, there was no such hand-wringing when George W. Bush started his second term with much smaller electoral mandates than President Obama has twice garnered. As you might recall, two days after his reelection in November 2004, a triumphant President Bush declared, "Let me put it to you this way: I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it." And in his 2005 State of the Union Address, George W. Bush spent that capital on one of the most polarizing and unpopular efforts in recent years: Social Security privatization.
Addressing Congress on February 2, 2005, President Bush warned of a Social Security system that would be "would be exhausted and bankrupt." But the solution to the "the idea of Social Security collapsing" did not include any of the laundry list of proposals to raise the retirement age, means-test benefits for the wealthy or higher payroll taxes. Instead, Bush argued, the "best way" to preserve the system for younger workers "is through voluntary personal retirement accounts."

"Best of all, the money in the account is yours, and the government can never take it away...And we'll make sure this plan is fiscally responsible by starting personal retirement accounts gradually and raising the yearly limits on contributions over time, eventually permitting all workers to set aside 4 percentage points of their payroll taxes in their accounts."

As in the 2000 campaign, Bush and his Republicans allies refused to explain how the trillions of dollars redirected from current Social Security recipients into private accounts would be replaced. (As Jonathan Chait recalled, Congressman Paul Ryan made his own proposal for privatizing Social Security, a plan "so staggeringly profligate, entailing more than $2 trillion in new debt over the first decade alone, that even the Bush administration opposed it as 'irresponsible.'") Nevertheless, President Bush began the sales jobs even before the SOTU. As he explained to January 2005 town hall with a predominantly African-American audience:

"Another interesting a personal savings account...which can't be used to bet on the lottery, or a dice game, or the track.
"Secondly, the interesting -- there's a -- African American males die sooner than other males do, which means the system is inherently unfair to a certain group of people."

That same month, then Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum led the drive to make President Bush's privatization scheme a reality in Congress. To close the sale with skeptical colleagues (and an even more skeptical public), Santorum developed a presentation with the GOP's official talking points. "Talk about how much more money they'd have for retirement if they themselves had been investing in a personal account all these years," the GOP privatization sales kit counseled Republican officeholders, remembering all the while that:

"Your audience doesn't know how trillions and billions differ. They know these numbers are large, but not how large nor how many billions make a trillion. Boil numbers down to 'your family's share.' Also avoid percentages; your audience will try to calculate them in their head--no easy task while listening to a speech--and many will do it incorrectly."

As it turned out, the American people did the math, and the result was catastrophe for President Bush. Within a month of his State of the Union, a New York Times/CBS News survey ("New Poll Finds Bush Priorities Are Out of Step With Americans") found that the public had firmly rejected the privatization gambit:

"51 percent said permitting individuals to invest part of their Social Security taxes in private accounts, the centerpiece of Mr. Bush's plan, was a bad idea, even as a majority said they agreed with Mr. Bush that the program would become insolvent near the middle of the century if nothing was done. The number who thought private accounts were a bad idea jumped to 69 percent if respondents were told that the private accounts would result in a reduction in guaranteed benefits. And 45 percent said Mr. Bush's private account plan would actually weaken the economic underpinnings of the nation's retirement system."

Soon, the centerpiece of President Bush's 2005 State of the Union address was dead. Alas, so, too, is the media's memory of what truly was an "aggressive", "partisan" and "polarizing" speech. Instead, as a popular President Obama presents his even more popular priorities and positions to the American people, he'll be greeted with a chorus denouncing him as "divisive"--and much worse.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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