President Bush is pushing ahead with an ambitious domestic agenda for his second four-year term that includes a proposal for major changes in the government pension system, known as Social Security.
Americans pay Social Security taxes during their working years. That money funds a government pension system that provides income for workers who paid into the system, once they have retired. Social Security currently offers retirement and disability benefits to more than 47 million Americans.
But the Social Security system is in trouble. As more people from the post-World War Two baby boom generation retire over the next several years, the amount of money available to pay those retirement benefits will drain the Social Security Trust Fund. Some economists predict the system could begin running out of money in as few as 14 years.
Martin Feldstein is a Harvard University economist, who supports President Bush's efforts to reform Social Security. "But the most important long-run challenge for the economy, I believe, is dealing with the fiscal implications of the aging population. If Social Security is not reformed, the payroll tax required to finance future [retirement] benefits would have increased from the current 12 percent to about 20 percent. That would be a major burden on all working households, and it would be a substantial drag on the economy," he said.
A major part of the president's plan is a proposal to allow younger workers to divert some of the taxes levied to fund Social Security into private savings accounts they would control.
Thomas Mann is a political analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington. He told VOA Television that the president's approach to Social Security is part of a larger view that seeks to reduce the role of the central government in people's everyday lives.
"Well, I think there is nothing more important than his broad conception of an ownership society, an idea in which individuals take increasing responsibilities for their own retirement income, and for their own health insurance," he said.
The Social Security pension program has been an essential source of support for retirees ever since it began in 1935 under President Franklin Roosevelt, in the wake of the Great Depression.
Various attempts to change it over the years have failed. Politicians from both political parties have often deemed it untouchable, because of its popularity with voters.
But with the program facing the prospect of financial insolvency and increased Republican majorities in the Congress following the November election, some reform activists believe the time may be right to push for major changes."I think the time may have come for Social Security reform. A number of members [of Congress] ran on reform, and the president ran on reform in 2000, and he ran on it again in 2004. It was the third rail [don't touch it] of [U.S.] politics, and you could not speak about it [before]. Now, members are speaking about it, and they are getting elected on [because of] it, which has changed," said Tripp Baird, an economic expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington in a VOA TV interview.
Many Democrats oppose the president's plan to reform Social Security. They argue that allowing younger workers to divert some of their tax revenues into private accounts will deplete the Social Security Trust Fund even sooner, forcing either higher taxes, or cuts in retirement benefits.
Senator John Corzine, a Democrat from New Jersey, warns that the short-term costs of diverting Social Security taxes into private accounts could be staggering.
"I do not think that has to be done through private accounts. It should not be done through so-called privatization. There are many, many other approaches, and if we get into borrowing a trillion-and-half to two trillion dollars when we are already running deficits of very, very major proportions, historic proportions, we are going to end up undermining the financial security of this country for years and years ahead," he said.
President Bush insists that the pension system needs major changes, in order to remain viable for future generations of retirees. He also says the changes can be made without raising new tax revenues, or cutting existing retirement benefits.
"It is very important for those who have retired to recognize that nothing is going to change when it comes to Social Security. And it is very important for those who are near retirement to understand that nothing will change," he said.
Social Security reform would be a major achievement, as President Bush tries to build a legacy in his second term. But a new public opinion poll also suggests that it looms as perhaps his most challenging political objective over the next four years.
A Wall Street Journal-NBC News survey found that 50 percent of those asked thought private Social Security accounts were a bad idea, compared with 38 percent who support them.