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Interview: Why the President's Speech is Important


A transcript of the interview with Thomas Mann, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution by VOA's Chris Simkins ? February 2, 2005.

MR. SIMKINS:

Joining us is Thomas Mann, a Senior Fellow of Governance with the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. Thank you, Mr. Mann, for joining us.

Let's talk about the President's State of the Union address. Historically speaking, what significance do these State of the Union addresses have?

MR. MANN:

State of the Unions are one of those events that have symbolic importance for the country. It's an occasion of pomp and tradition. It involves a nationally televised audience. It's an opportunity for the President to try to shape the policymaking agenda to influence public opinion.

On the other hand, you'd be hard pressed to say that the speeches themselves lead members of Congress to change their mind on important public policy issues. It's ritual. It's agenda setting. But it's not policymaking.

MR. SIMKINS:

The speech tends to have more specifics contained in them. Is this an opportunity for some of the President's opponents to pick apart some of his agenda?

MR. MANN:

Absolutely. The Democrats have already signaled their adamant opposition to the President's proposals on Social Security. That will be the major line of division in the upcoming Congress, and you will hear a lot from Democrats after the speech on that in particular. But there will also be opposition to some of his judicial nominations, to decisions regarding the budget, particularly on the spending side. So, yes, the two parties will engage fully with this speech.

MR. SIMKINS:

Let's talk about some of the parts of the speech, which we are already hearing from some White House officials will be broken, half into domestic issues, half into foreign policy issues. On the domestic issues, the administration has decided to make revamping the Social Security retirement system their top priority. Will he be specific? And how dangerous is it for the President to be very specific at this point on what his plans are in terms of reshaping the pension system?

MR. MANN:

From what we can tell, the President will be more specific on the individual accounts, but he won't be specific on the benefit cuts that will be required to make the system whole. The personal accounts themselves do very little to shore up the finances of the Social Security system. That entails benefit cuts and revenue increases. And I think the President is likely to say very little about that. But he will be more specific on the personal accounts and what he has in mind with that.

MR. SIMKINS:

What do you think the President's advantages are in making Social Security a top priority, when some of his critics may say there are other problems facing the nation that are more pressing than the need to revamp the Social Security [system], things such as health care for Americans?

MR. MANN:

Well, I don't think he has many advantages. It's a tall order to reshape the most popular Federal program in American history. There are some funding problems. They're mainly in the outyears. They're not as serious as they were when we made adjustments in the system in previous decades. But acting now would be helpful.

The problem is the President's primary objective is not to achieve actuarial balance in Social Security; it's to really alter the nature of the program by carving out personal, or private, accounts from the payroll tax. That's a major change, and it's one that virtually all Democrats and some Republicans oppose. It's also the case that our problems in health care costs are much more substantial than the Social Security shortfall. And many believe he ought to be focusing his attention there.

MR. SIMKINS:

Will he focus attention there, do you think?

MR. MANN:

He will have something to say on health care, but it will be things he talked about during the campaign, the revised medical liability, so that we can reduce the number of lawsuits filed against physicians. He will call for more medical savings accounts. But I don't see him really engaging fully in the broad issues having to do with cost and quality and health insurance coverage.

MR. SIMKINS:

Let's talk about foreign policy issues that are expected to be contained in the President's State of the Union address. On Sunday, Iraq held historic elections. And many are saying this is one of the biggest gambles of Mr. Bush's presidency: will democracy hold in that country or will Iraq slide into civil war? What will the President need to do to ensure that he wins this gamble?

MR. MANN:

I don't know that it's within his power to ensure victory. It may well be well beyond his power and depend very much on the Iraqis themselves. But certainly, in the State of the Union speech he will point to elections in Afghanistan and in Palestine and in Iraq as signs of important democratic change in the region. He will also say that this is no time to cut and run. The Iraqis want us there for a period of time to stabilize security and to help them train the forces that will eventually allow them to look out for their own security.

So I think the President is going to say we've got to stick with it, and it will cost us the blood of our soldiers and substantial money, but it's a cause that's worth fighting.

MR. SIMKINS:

How important is it that the President set some benchmarks for what might happen in the future in Iraq in terms of our involvement there, especially there are coming demands mounting from Democrats that Mr. Bush use his speech to explain how long forces would remain in Iraq and what measures of success will be made?

MR. MANN:

My impression is that the President will not respond to Democratic demands for a public timetable for the withdrawal or build?down of U.S. military forces in Iraq. He will point to the next 12 months as a period in which the Iraqis will appoint a new government, draft a constitution, hopefully ratify that constitution, then to hold elections for a permanent government, and then, after that, presumably establish the basis that would allow the U.S. to gradually withdraw its troops.

I suspect the President is going to be as determined and stubborn as he has [been] in the past not to respond to his critics but to proceed in the fashion that he believes is the most prudent and eventually will be the most successful.

MR. SIMKINS:

What do you think the defining moment will be in the year or two ahead in the Bush presidency, especially since he's going into this State of the Union address with one of the lowest approval ratings of any second?term President since Richard Nixon?

MR. MANN:

There are two mega issues confronting the President, one he put on the table himself: Social Security reform. We will know sometime during the year whether there is any life to that effort and whether the President is prepared to negotiate on his nonnegotiable demands; that is, private accounts carved out of current payroll taxes and no tax increases. If he sticks to those, the odds are against any success. But we shall see.

On the foreign policy front, it really goes to developments in Iraq, how that plays out. But also whether progress is made with the nuclear capability of Iran. Iran may well replace Iraq as the hotspot in the Middle East. So we will have to keep our eyes there as well.

MR. SIMKINS:

What, finally, are some of your thoughts about reaching out to other countries in terms of dealing with situations that might crop up in Iran or North Korea or other parts of the Middle East?

MR. MANN:

Well, thus far, the President has rejected the overtures from Germany, France and the United Kingdom to join in their effort to negotiate with the Iranians on the nuclear capability issue. Certainly Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, with her trip to Europe, will be speaking in more soothing and more diplomatic tones, but we don't yet see any policy changes that would suggest the U.S. is going to set a different course.

MR. SIMKINS:

Thomas Mann, Senior Fellow of Governance at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., thank you for joining us.

MR. MANN:

Happy to be here.

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