President Bush deserves credit for being willing to start a national conversation on strengthening Social Security, a topic that has long made politicians nervous. Since he highlighted the issue in his State of the Union speech, he's been traveling the country, trying to convince voters that personal retirement accounts should play a key role in reforming Social Security.
Mr. Bush was right when he told Congress in his address last week: "You and I share a responsibility. We must pass reforms to solve the financial problems of Social Security once and for all."
Finding a viable solution will not be easy. Social Security faces a $3.7 trillion gap over the next 75 years between what it can afford to pay and what retirees have been promised. The system plays an emotionally laden role in the lives of millions of American retirees and persons with disabilities. And there is disagreement on the proper balance between the market and the government in funding a secure retirement for all.
The president took a useful step forward in his speech to the nation by providing helpful details on how these personal accounts would work. The procedures he and his aides outlined included careful protections for future retirees on how the accounts would be established, managed, and used.
But the president needs to do more if he wants to achieve his goal of permanently fixing Social Security.
A good start would be to tone down the alarmist rhetoric. As he barnstormed in five states last week, the president said that in 2042 Social Security would be "flat bust." That is misleading. Even the Social Security system's trustees say the program would still be able to pay 70 percent of promised benefits then.
That's not a great situation - but it does not fit the commonly accepted definition of "broke," a claim Bush has also made. Social Security will continue to have revenue coming in from the taxes workers and employers pay on wages. The problem is a projected shortfall between that revenue and promised benefits.
To all but the most careful listener, Bush also has seemed to be selling personal accounts as a cure for Social Security's financial ills. Last Thursday he told listeners in Fargo, N.D.: "I've heard all of the complaints ... how this is going to ruin Social Security. Forget it, it's going to make it stronger." But senior Bush officials have told reporters that personal accounts do not help cure the system's solvency woes.
So it was heartening when the president on Friday told a crowd in Omaha, "I fully recognize a personal retirement account is not the only thing needed to ... solve Social Security permanently. But it's a part of a solution." Continued presidential candor on what private accounts can - and cannot - accomplish will bring much needed clarity to the national debate.
In selling change to a wary public, it's understandable that the president focuses more on dessert than on spinach. The sense of personal responsibility and ownership that personal accounts offer is appealing. Even those who doubt whether the nation can afford the accounts should acknowledge that.
Perhaps the greatest contribution Bush could make now would be to help the American people face up to tough choices on Social Security.
He made a useful - but still too tentative - start on this in the State of the Union when he said that fixing Social Security would "require an open, candid review of the options." The options he listed - but didn't endorse - included limiting benefits for the wealthy, changing the way benefits are calculated, and increasing the retirement age. Raising taxes, however, is not a option, he stated.
Still, there's a difference between presenting a list and providing leadership. Telling Americans that options are "on the table" falls short of providing the leadership about choices that presidents are hired to provide, and that Bush clearly enjoys exercising in foreign-policy matters.
The president had it right in last week's speech. "I know that none of these reforms would be easy. But we have to move ahead with courage and honesty, because our children's retirement is more important than partisan politics." That honesty should also include being more forthcoming about the hard retirement choices ahead.