Bring Back the Old George W. Bush
According to the political pundits, President Bush is adjusting to the Republican Congressional defeat last fall by adopting a more conciliatory posture toward the Democrats. They tell us that he wants to move forward on a bipartisan basis on many of the key problems facing the country.
While bipartisan progress would be encouraging, it is very difficult to see any evidence of compromise from President Bush in key areas of public policy. In fact, in almost every important area, the positions he has adopted since the November election have been more extreme than those he had previously advocated. Most of the public has probably failed to recognize President Bush's sharp turn to the right, because the media has chosen to place more emphasis on his public gestures toward the Democratic leadership than his policy proposals.
In the months since the election, President Bush has escalated the war in Iraq and made serious threats and allegations (unsupported by evidence) that could presage an attack against Iran. He has proposed a health-care reform measure that, as a side effect, would largely wipe out Social Security for low and moderate income workers. President Bush has also proposed gradually phasing out Medicare for middle income retirees over the next 4 or 5 decades. And, he has again proposed little more than talk to combat global warming.
Taking each item in turn, the escalation in Iraq has at least received attention from the media. The escalation is striking because it is not only a repudiation of the Democrats and the decision of the electorate in November, but this policy also directly contradicts the assessment of the foreign policy elites of both political parties, as expressed in the report of the Iraq Study Group. There's not much evidence of reconciliation here.
There also is not much evidence of reconciliation in the new round of threats against Iran, which has included the arrest and possible killing of Iranians found in Iraq (including those regarded as diplomatic personnel by the Iraqi government). President Bush has also sent new military forces into the region, which could be used to carry out a strike against Iran. In addition, the administration is also planting the same sort stories in the media about Iran as it did about Saddam Hussein's WMDs in the period leading up to the invasion of Iraq .
On the domestic side, President Bush has made a proposal that would allow workers who bought a family health insurance policy to deduct $15,000 from their taxable income. Low and moderate income people typically face no income tax liability, so President Bush proposed that they could also deduct the payroll taxes that they would owe on this money. While that may sound generous, this proposal would also reduce the Social Security benefits that these workers would receive in retirement. In the case of a worker earning $20,000 a year who always purchases a family insurance policy, the Bush plan would cut the projected Social Security benefit by 60 percent. After having just waged a massive battle over a plan that involved considerably more modest cuts to Social Security, this health care proposal hardly seems conciliatory.
Similarly, President Bush has proposed an indexation formula for Medicare that would gradually force all but the poorest of seniors to pay most of the cost of their health care themselves . While the formulas in the Bush proposal originally only affect high-income seniors (single people earning more than $80,000 a year and couples earning more than $160,000), after 20 years they would hit single people at the same point in the income distribution as someone earning $40,000 this year. In 40 years, about the time that Social Security is first projected to face a shortfall, the means testing will have fallen to the point where a single person earning $20,000 at present or a couple earning $40,000 would receive little benefit from Medicare. Under President Bush's plan, the line for means-testing Medicare would continue to fall, so that eventually only the poorest of the elderly would receive any benefit from Medicare.
Finally, on global warming, President Bush has politely acknowledged that it is likely human-caused, but he remains as committed as ever to taking no action that could reduce US emissions of greenhouse gases.
The media have focused on President Bush's smiling handshakes and hugs with Democratic party leaders. Most people view the prospect of a retirement without Social Security or Medicare, or having their kids killed in Iraq and Iran, as being more important. It would be a big step forward if the current crop of Washington reporters could be relegated to the society pages and replaced by reporters who understand and care about real issues.
Dean Baker is a macroeconomist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. He previously worked as a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute and an assistant professor at Bucknell University.