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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Social Security, Iraq Are Bush's Primary Concerns

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President George W. Bush challenged a wary Congress on Wednesday night to join him in reinventing Social Security for the 21st century, saying his generation had a duty to preserve the retirement system for those who follow and for the first time setting out details of the individual investment accounts at the heart of his proposal.

"Social Security was a great moral success of the 20th century, and we must honor its great purposes in this new century," he said. "The system, however, on its current path, is headed toward bankruptcy. And so we must join together to strengthen and save Social Security."

Delivering his state of the union address three days after Iraqis went to the polls in their first free election in half a century, Bush promised not to end the U.S. mission there before the Iraqis are capable of providing their own security against the bloody insurgency.

"We will not set an artificial timetable for leaving Iraq, because that would embolden the terrorists and make them believe they can wait us out," he said.

Turning to the Middle East, where Israelis and Palestinians are embarking on a new effort at peace, he asked Congress for $350 million to support the Palestinians under their new president, Mahmoud Abbas.

He also expanded on the promise in his inaugural address to fight tyranny, saying to the Iranian people, "As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you," and urging Saudi Arabia and Egypt to "show the way toward democracy in the Middle East."

He gave a preview of a domestic battle he will join in earnest next week, saying the budget he will propose Monday would substantially reduce or eliminate more than 150 programs, an assault on government spending of a scale not seen since the ill-fated effort by Congressional Republicans in 1995 to cut entire cabinet agencies.

"The principle here is clear," he said. "Taxpayer dollars must be spent wisely, or not at all."

In an evening marked by emotional responses and the waving of fingers stained with purple ink in a gesture of solidarity with the millions of Iraqis who defied the threat of violence to vote on Sunday, Bush won hearty applause throughout much of his 53-minute speech. He was relaxed and smooth in his delivery, even when some Democrats hooted in derision at his assertions that Social Security is in dire financial straits.

The president went into the speech fortified by his narrow but decisive victory over Senator John Kerry in November, expanded Republican majorities in the House and Senate and images of Iraqis turning out to vote on Sunday in large numbers. Bush will not face the voters again. But this year's address opened what could be the last two campaigns of his career. One is to persuade Congress and the American people to go along with his plans to remake not just Social Security but also large swaths of other domestic policy along conservative lines through judicial appointments, legislation and executive action.

The other is to shape his own place in history as a leader who extended freedom and democracy more broadly into the world even as he unleashed U.S. military might to combat what he had cast as the terrorist threat to those values.

He linked the two as elements of a generational commitment, referring to the children and grandchildren of those holding power today and asking, "What will be the state of their union?"

Bush's proposal for Social Security, if enacted, would produce the first fundamental overhaul in the way the retirement system works since it was created seven decades ago.

Once fully phased in, his plan would allow workers who will be 55 or younger this year to place as much as 4 percent of their wages subject to the Social Security payroll tax into personal accounts that they could invest in stocks and bonds and draw on only after retiring.

Workers currently pay 6.2 percent of their taxable wages to finance the retirement system, an amount matched by their employers, so a maximum contribution to the proposed accounts would amount to nearly two-thirds of their payroll tax.

Bush did not say how he would pay for his plan; nor did he commit himself to any particular course of cuts in the guaranteed benefit to restore the retirement system's health.

But simply by putting Social Security at the top of his domestic agenda and making it the centerpiece of his address, he declared his willingness to engage fully in one of the most politically fraught and ideologically charged policy battles of recent times.

To create a sense of urgency in Congress, Bush described Social Security as being in deep financial trouble.

"If you've got children in their 20s, as some of us do, the idea of Social Security collapsing before they retire does not seem like a small matter," he said. "And it should not be a small matter to the United States Congress."