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Historical Context of President Bush’s Proposal to Reform Social Security

February 3, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: And now for some historical perspective on what the president is proposing, we turn once again to: Presidential historian, Michael Beschloss, Ellen Fitzpatrick, professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, and Richard Norton Smith, the executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

Michael, what does history tell us about presidents using a state of the union address to make major reforms like the president’s trying to do on Social Security?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, they like to do it. For much of early American history, the presidents took this obligation from the Constitution to report to Congress every year basically sort of a laundry list. This is what’s happened in the country last year, and we’re letting you, Congress, know. And then Theodore Roosevelt realized that this was a huge bully pulpit, as he would have said, to go to Congress, go to the American people and get them to support important programs.

And so the expectation has gotten to the point where if you give a state of the union where you don’t ask for a big program or an important reform, the president seems to have erred. Two quick examples: 1964 Lyndon Johnson was giving his first state of the union. The pressure on him was so great that he included in that speech that famous statement, “This administration declares unconditional war on poverty.” Turned out it was basically just speech material. He had no idea what he was going to do. 1971, Richard Nixon…

JIM LEHRER: But then he had to follow up –


JIM LEHRER: — and come up with a war on poverty.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Had to do it pretty quickly. And in 1971, Richard Nixon declared something called the new American Revolution, very modest, which was to turn 12 cabinet departments into a smaller number and revolutionize the way the federal government was run. That lasted about three minutes it was almost never heard from again.

JIM LEHRER: So it’s not been terribly successful?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It’s successful when a president uses it well. For instance, John Kennedy in 1961 gave a speech that was billed actually as his second state of the union, in which he announced that he felt that we should land a man on the moon by 1970.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Ellen, what would you add to that in terms of the way presidents have used this and whether they’re they’ve done it successfully or not, and is this a successful place to launch a major program?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I think it’s a very positive moment for every president because he’s standing before the Congress and saying, let’s work together and try to achieve something together to really draw upon the goodwill of the moment. One thing that’s very interesting is that every single president since Franklin Roosevelt in a state of the union address talked about Social Security, but in every single instance, even including Reagan and the father of our current President Bush talked about the necessity of sustaining the system and making it work, but not really questioning the underlying fundamentals.

So Social Security has really been a place that has been visited and revisited and visited again in all of these speeches; we had in 1990 this president’s father saying the last thing we need to do is mess with Social Security. Here these many years later, we’re seeing a very radical presentation of a revision of the fundamental premises of the program. So, yes, the moment is ripe. It’s the time to introduce big ideas, but then, of course, the debate and argument follows.

JIM LEHRER: Richard, what would you add or subtract from what Ellen and Michael have said?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, I was thinking last night, listening to the speech, of LBJ’s second state of the union address. Remember in January 1965, fresh from that landslide victory over Barry Goldwater, people thinking the conservatives are dead and gone, it was the high-water mark of postwar liberalism, and LBJ rolled out program after program after program declaring war not only on poverty but calling for a Voting Rights Act, what became eventually Medicaid, an anti-crime program, the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities for starters.

40 years later we’re listening to the un-Johnson, another president from Texas. That’s as far as the similarities go. What you heard last night was a president who is redefining in some ways the very nature of government or who hopes to redefine it using Social Security as the fulcrum. If he can convert Social Security from the ultimate government benefits program, from an insurance program to an investment program to a program of individual choice, individual economic empowerment, he really will have brought about a transformation in the nature of government and conservatism that not even Ronald Reagan dared to hope for.

JIM LEHRER: Ellen, do you see it the same way on the specific issue of Social Security?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I think on the specific issue of Social Security Richard is absolutely right; that what we’re talking about here is an enormous shift in the rhetoric, the ideals. Last night President Bush referred to Social Security as the great moral success of the 20th century. But what was moral about it was that it redefined, it questioned the old laissez-faire principles that had governed the modern industrial capitalist order that we live in or lived in, and really supported the notion that it was not the business of the federal government to plan to help individuals, to step in and to provide social insurance.

That idea went belly up in 1935 as a result of a series of catastrophic changes that had taken place that left the elderly in a state of indigence in many, many cases. So the moral principle was we band together as a group, one generation helps pay for the other, to ensure in partnership with the federal government a respectable and dignified old age. And what our current president is suggesting is that a kind of radical individualism in which we go back to a model of people really taking on responsibility and planning for themselves.

JIM LEHRER: Michael, what about that? How do you see this particular thing the president is trying to do? Do you agree that it’s as radical as Ellen and Richard believe?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It’s an emblem of the way he’d like to change things. He would like to bring things very much in that direction, the pendulum’s swinging back from the time of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. I think that’s gets into the question of George Bush’s ambition. This is not someone like his father or like a Gerald Ford who were very content to do good things but didn’t have a huge aspiration to be thought of as a great president.

Look at that speech last night. He uses the term, for instance, “freedom from fear,” taken directly out of Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 state of the union on the eve of our involvement in World War II. At the end he says, you know, our duty is to do things that are of the magnitude of abolishing slavery and liberating Europe and ending communism. He very much sees what he’s doing, especially in this term, as something that can install him in the pantheon of the greats if it works.

JIM LEHRER: Is he shooting for the right thing? If it does, in fact, work, would this put him in the pantheon of the greats?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: If it works, but it’s a huge gamble. The reason that most people, most presidents don’t want to tangle with Social Security is because it’s about as hard as it comes in politics, and there is a very good chance that you will fail. 1999 Bill Clinton gave the state of the union using the same phrase that George Bush did last night. We have to save Social Security. He thought we should do it by investing the surplus. Obviously that didn’t happen.

JIM LEHRER: Richard, where do you come down on this? If the president pulls this off, is this a big deal as a matter of presidential history?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: This is an enormous deal. This is more than the bully pulpit this is more than advocacy. We’re at that stage of the process right now.


RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Now comes the hard part. Now comes the next phase of modern presidential leadership, which is persuasion, persuasion of the millions through the mass media, which you saw the president beginning today and the infinitely harder process of persuading and arm-twisting one congressman at a time to do what very few congressmen are inclined to do, which is to stand up and vote against their immediate political interests.

That’s an enormous challenge for any president, whatever the issue. The other thing, it’s interesting, by the way, every president talks about freedom. In that same state of the union address, I referred to LBJ’s in ’65, he talked about freedom. He talked about freedom as a challenge, not a fulfillment. One way of thinking about this is that there are two kinds of presidents. They all talk about freedom. There are presidents who promise freedom through government, like an LBJ or an FDR, and there are presidents who promise freedom from government and clearly George W. Bush belongs to the latter camp.

JIM LEHRER: Ellen, where would you classify this potentially if he, in fact, makes this work as a big presidential pull off?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Well, Jim, all I can say is don’t bet your pension on it. As we go through —

JIM LEHRER: I said if I said if.

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: As we go through the whole pantheon of the state of the union addresses, never mind presidents, and look at the predictions and what came to pass, take this example: In January of 1968, Lyndon Johnson was celebrating the fact that there had been free democratic elections in South Vietnam. He talked about people from villages voting. He talked about the fact that this had taken place in the midst of war and under the threat of violence.

Two weeks later, the Tet Offensive occurred and we know the ultimate outcome of the war was the collapse of that government and indeed of South Vietnam. The example of Richard Nixon in January of 1974: He made reference to the so-called Watergate affair. He said, one thing I will never do is walk away from the job that the American people elected me to do. Eight months later, seven months later he was walking away from the job. So these are moments of grand ideals, of big ambitions, of, you know, a certain level of grandiosity, but as I said, much remains to be seen.

JIM LEHRER: So you’re suggesting that none of us who are under 55 start worrying about our private accounts, is that what you’re suggesting, not yet?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I think we should all be concerned about addressing the many issues that are raised by Social Security, but I note that President Bush himself and the others who are over 55, there was a tone last night in which he was reassuring these people, you know, everything’s going to be fine. You’ll be okay. And in the interest of saying that we got to think about the new generation, putting the risk on them.

JIM LEHRER: Well we have to leave it there. Thank you all three again.