February 3, 2005
Fargo, N.D. — The President's visit was promoted as a conversation about Social Security. He came to North Dakota to reassure people in a state with an aging population. Fourteen percent of North Dakota's 609,000 people are 65 or older.
President Bush was here to build support for his plans to reform Social Security. The President says the way to fix Social Security is to privatize portions of the system.
The President told the crowd of some 7,000 people there is no reason for people receiving benefits to worry.
"For those of you have received a check or are about to receive a check, not one thing will change," Bush said.
The president stuck to what he says will become familiar themes in the coming weeks. Americans who are 55 or older will get their benefits -- unchanged. The problem, he says, is for the next generation.
"The math doesn't work ... starting in the year 2018, more money goes out of Social Security then comes in. Right now it's the other way around -- more money is coming in than going out," said Bush. "But a bunch of baby-boomers who are going to live longer and have been promised greater benefits are fixing to retire, and so the system goes into the red."
Bush has released few details on his proposal. He wants reforms that allow people to pay some of their payroll taxes into private accounts. The president says that money will be protected, but he hasn't said how. The money will go into conservative stocks and bonds. During his speech, the president pledged once more that he would listen to all good ideas on how to reform the system.
"In other words, we're not going to play politics with the issue," Bush promised. "We're going to say, 'If you've got a good idea, come forth with your idea.' Because now is the time to put partisanship aside and focus on saving Social Security for young workers."
President Bush received several standing ovations during his speech. But outside the arena, the president's popularity took a dip.
R.E. Mattson is one of several hundred who people carried signs and protested the president's policies. Mattson says he's skeptical of the president's plans for Social Security reform.
"It's supposed to be a safety net. It's not supposed to be something that could or could not pay out in the end, which is what he wants to do by putting the money in the stock market. It's like playing craps with our future," said Mattson.
No one was allowed in the arena with anti-Bush signs. Some people were black-listed from attending the event. There was reportedly a list of names of people who would not be given tickets to the president's event. The North Dakota Republican Party says it knows of no such list. But Fargo City Commissioner Linda Coates says she was on it.
"That's kind of a chilling list -- being told you're on a Secret Service 'do-not-admit' list," said Coates. "Looking at the list published in the paper, they are simply people who at one time or another had written a letter to the editor critical of Bush policies, or people who were part of a grass roots campaign prior to the election. I just think that's really chilling."
Coates was given a ticket to the event by Fargo Mayor Bruce Furness, so she was able to attend the speech.
Reaction to President Bush's speech was mixed. Many seemed intrigued by his ideas. Steve Opat, 20, likes the idea of private retirement accounts, but he has questions.
"It wasn't clear -- he always says how the regular Social Security is going to decline -- I want to know how he plans to combat that," said Opat.
Others want to know how they would pay into the system. Susan Weiand owns a jewerly store in Bismarck.
"My concern is as a business owner. How do I give it to my employees? Or do I make sure it doesn't go straight to them -- it goes into their account? I'm going to have to do some research on that," said Weiand.
Others just oppose the the president's plan entirely, like Janis Cheney, director of the North Dakota AARP. She says investing Social Security money in the stock market is a risky proposition.
"Because the market can go down just as easily as it can go up -- and it's just too much of a gamble for most people," said Cheney.
Bush was accompanied on Air Force One by several members of Congress, including Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D. The president spent much of the flight talking with the lawmakers.
"He's saying we've got to take more money out of Social Security to start private accounts and borrow the money," said Conrad, a target of Bush's travels. "I just think it's very unwise."
Other Democrats said Bush's program could reduce guaranteed government benefits for younger Americans by 40 percent.
After the event in Fargo, President Bush flew to Montana to continue his efforts to build support for his plan.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)