President George Bush is facing increasing hostility at home to his proposals to kill off the US’s social security programme, which provides state retirement and disability benefits to some 44 million Americans.
Late last month he launched a second attempt at “reforming” social security. Bush claimed his plans would mean “benefits for low income workers will grow faster than benefits for people who are better off”.
In practice this means benefit payouts will be cut for anyone earning more than £13,000 a year. A worker born five years from now, earning an average wage before retirement at 65, would face a 28 percent cut in benefits.
But Bush’s plans to dismantle social security are running into opposition. “People are smart enough to know that the money taken out of their wages for social security is not the same as taxes wasted on war in Iraq,” says Dave Lindorff, a Pennsylvania-based radical journalist.
“They still think that social security is a good thing. Most young people have parents on retirement benefits—nobody wants to be solely responsible for taking care of their parents. And older people are fighting to preserve the fund for their kids.”
This popular mood is being fed by wider anger at Bush, six months on from his narrow re-election. “The economy is stagnating, the war is going badly, and gas prices are rising. There’s a lot of dissatisfaction with the guy,” says Lindorff.
One consequence is that Bush’s plans are meeting opposition from unlikely quarters. Opposition Democrat politicians — normally prone to compromise — are thus far holding firm against him.
“Bush’s tactic all through his presidency has been to make outrageous proposals and then wait for conservative Democrats to come up with a ‘compromise’ deal which he can present as a ‘bipartisan’ solution,” says Lindorff.
US trade unions have also been campaigning hard against any watering down of social
security. The AFL-CIO union federation organised rallies in 70 cities as well as counter-protests against Bush during his recent tour of 23 states to sell his social security proposals.
Echoing New Labour’s rhetoric over pensions in Britain, Bush has been pushing slanted demographic statistics to claim the social security fund faces a financial crisis unless his “reforms” go through.
“The White House is financing a giant propaganda campaign to convince voters to support privatisation,” said AFL-CIO president John Sweeney recently.
Even the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), which Lindorff describes as little more than a “business organisation for selling insurance”, has been actively opposing the proposals.
Last year AARP sold out over opposing Bush’s attacks on the Medicare health insurance system. It faced a backlash from its members and many quit.
The US’s social security programme was introduced during the 1930s Great Depression as part of president Franklin D Roosevelt’s “New Deal” package of welfare reforms.
Social security was fiercely opposed by the right wing at the time and has remained a thorn in the side of the US ruling class.
Bush’s attacks on the programme are thus “part of a long term corporate strategy to kill off social security”, says Lindorff. “He is just trying to find the right mechanism.”
The president’s first offensive against social security has already been pushed onto the back burner. This was a plan to start privatising the system by offering younger people a partial opt out.
“Bush offered young people an arrangement whereby part of their contributions would be invested through the government in the stock markets,” explains Lindorff.
“But everyone knows the stock markets suck. The stock market has been standing still for the last five years and it could go down.
“Bush is so unpopular at the moment that even weak-kneed Democrats have been holding firm. The only correct stand at this point is no compromise. The president has grasped the live rail — it’s time to throw the switch and hit him with some high voltage popular outrage.”