Jewish World Review Feb. 8, 2005 / 29 Shevat 5765

Paul Greenberg

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Fear itself | Whatever one thinks of the direction in which George W. Bush proposes to take the country, it's clear, after his State of the Union address, that he's got one.

This second-term president is no lame duck, no time-server merely reacting to events. He seems determined to shape them. And to overcome the familiar obstacles to any American leader: doubt, inertia, and, above all, fear.

Once again this commander-in-chief refused to give the enemy in Iraq the satisfaction (and advantage) of setting a timetable for American withdrawal, which is the kind of "exit strategy" that would endanger the exit itself. American troops would leave, he made it clear, when Iraq could stand on its own as a free, strong and independent ally — not before.

This president well understands that the war for Iraq, and for the Middle East, is being fought not just in Iraq and Afghanistan but here, on the home front. This is a war not just for Iraqi freedom but for American opinion.

If there is a single key to the success of American foreign policy, it is constancy of purpose. And this president is not about to go wobbly. That goes for domestic issues, too. Here, too, the great enemy is fear — fear of change, of experiment, even of increased freedom.

The domestic issue he emphasized was the need to reform Social Security — so it can prove at least as successful for future generations as it has been for those now drawing or about to draw its benefits.

There was a time when such an effort would have been politically suicidal. Even now any discussion of reforming Social Security is tinged with doubts, rumors and mainly fear.

You could hear the boos from the Democratic side of the aisle when the president dared address the coming crisis in Social Security. His mission Wednesday night was to confront the rumors, clear away the confusions, and face down the fears the critics of reform have so assiduously promoted.

A foresighted leader does not wait till a problem becomes a crisis before acting, and George W. Bush proposes to act. Now. He made considerable progress in his State of the Union address by broadly outlining what his plan would do to save Social Security and what it wouldn't:

It would let Americans opt to use part of their payroll taxes to set up investment accounts that would be their money to save, not the government's to spend. These private accounts could even be passed on to children and grandchildren.

The decision to establish a personal Social Security account would be purely voluntary; those who wanted to stick entirely with the current program could. (Though it's doubtful most Americans would after the benefits of personal accounts become clearer over the years.)

None of the changes the president was proposing would affect the benefits of any American 55 or older.

The personal accounts would be carefully monitored, conservatively invested, and would come with prudent limits. Much like the current Thrift Savings Plan that has long been available for federal employees. ("We will make sure a personal account can't be emptied out all at once, but rather paid out over time, as an addition to traditional Social Security benefits.")

Without some changes, Social Security is headed for perilous times as the number of Americans drawing benefits increases, and the number paying into the system decreases. Because Americans are living longer and drawing ever higher benefits, the system is simply not sustainable if current trends — in population and pay-outs — continue.

But any proposed reform is soon beset by a host of bugaboos loosed by critics opposed to any change. Wouldn't diverting some payroll taxes into private accounts deprive the government of the money it needs to pay current Social Security retirees? Transition costs, these expenses are called.

But that money will have to be paid out in any event. It's just a choice of when. It's like paying off a mortgage; the government can wait till a crushing payment is due once Social Security's deficits grow huge, or it can begin to raise the necessary revenue sooner. Also, the more money people choose to put in their private accounts, the less the traditional Social Security system will have to pay them when they retire.

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Switching partly to private accounts would actually lessen the burden on the Social Security system in the long run. The government can pay now or wait and have to pay much more later. Refinancing your mortgage involves certain costs, too, but it's cheaper in the long run.

Beyond the debate over the numbers, this is a debate is over the kind of American society we wish to shape: one in which the people are beholden to politicians for their Social Security benefits, or one in which they own their own Social Security accounts.

Imagine: Every American an investor! It's a prospect that pleases many of us, but seems to scare the Democratic opposition. Maybe they think the vision of Every Citizen an Investor! Comes frighteningly close to Every Citizen a Republican!

The only alternative the Democratic leaders offer is drift. They would do little but hope for the best, and that isn't good enough.

In another era, a bold and forthright president appealed to Americans not to let themselves be cowed by menacing dangers abroad or unreasoning fears at home: "So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself . . . ." Franklin Roosevelt's words, and spirit, could be this president's.

George W. Bush doesn't just sit back and wait for things to happen; he acts. His plans are not yet fully formed, his ideas are debatable, but there's no doubting his willingness to lead — or his basic stand at home and abroad: against fear.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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