Other bloggers, such as Timothy Noah, Chris Suellentrop, and Sam Rosenfeld, have been harsh on President Bush for flatly refusing to say anything meaningful about Social Security benefit cuts at his press conference. Certainly, as an aesthetic matter, it seems to have been the usual arrogant frat boy routine and contempt for democratic openness that make him unwatchable. Plus there were hints of triangulating, in the Clintonian sense of trying to make the Republican Congress take the blame for proposing benefit cuts.
But - Bush did appear to acknowledge, however obliquely, that benefit cuts are necessary, and that they are on the table other than for current and near-retirees. (I would put these folks' benefits on the chopping block too, presumably through means-testing to avoid impact on those who have too little else, but I recognize that this is politically beyond the pale.)
I interpret him as saying that it's too soon to be at all frank and open about benefit cuts, which to have a chance would have to be proposed further down the road. And if this is the best political strategy for moving a couple of steps back towards fiscal balance, then, however unedifying, there is something to be said for it.
Not to say that the Social Security changes will move us towards fiscal balance, or that individual accounts have anything to do with such a move, but still let's be fair at this point.
One of the big controversies on the blogosphere over the last few days has been whether there really is a Social Security crisis when the benefits are projected as lasting for a while. Alas, this debate uses an arbitrary measure, the Social Security Trust Fund, of when the money is officially deemed to run out, wholly aside from the actual financial markets question of when we can't raise the money to pay benefits without hyper-inflation. Alternatively, bloggers debate whether it is tactically wise for the Democrats to say that the Social Security funding crisis Bush keeps invoking for political cover is a sham. Should they instead be "proactive" by saying yes it's real, but let's do X, Y, and Z instead of individual accounts? This choice in turn is getting debated mainly based on whether there has been too much political rhetoric over the last 10+ years about the crisis for the Dems to change the message now. (See, for example, Andrew Samwick and the others he mentions.) So this is a debate about perception, not substance.
Granted, perceptions are important, as are political tactics, especially given how the Bush team plays ball. But I would like to see more recognition of the important substantive point, which is that we face a serious overall fiscal crisis to which rising Social Security benefits (i.e. growing faster than the economy due to increasing life expectancies) are a meaningful contributor. So we need to address the overall fiscal problem no matter what games we play with accounting fictions (or more charitably, precommitment tools) such as the "Social Security Trust Fund." True, Medicare, or more broadly unsustainably rising healthcare spending, is the biggest problem, and one that will have to be addressed no matter what. But, to quote my mother-in-law, "'Every little bit helps,' said the old lady as she spit in the ocean." It certainly would be worthwhile to address Social Security if addressing it meant significantly narrowing its $10 trillion fiscal gap. And the fact that we have other, bigger problems actually increases the importance of addressing this piece (since we have no slack), even if suggesting that this is not the most logical place to start.
All this being said, I do wonder if Bush's punt to the Congress, rather than merely being smart tactics, actually shows a lack of nerve (or clout as he heads towards lame duck status with mediocre approval ratings) that suggests nothing will happen after all.