Sunday, May 8, 2011

President #9: George H. W. Bush (1989-1993)

How did the policies of President Reagan influence your take on Social Security? How did your administration approach Social Security?

My time as president coincided with years of temporary solvency of the Social Security system brought about by the historical amendments of 1983 during the Reagan administration. Thus during my presidency, I was in no rush to enact new changes despite some calls for me to do so.

Instead, I reminded Americans that every one of them contributing to the system or receiving benefits that we made a promise to them, and that we would keep it.[1] I would protect the sanctity of the Social Security system that had become the backbone of our nation’s social policy; I was a Republican president, "often accused by political opponents in an election year," who stood up for Social Security.[2] We accomplished the goal through a bipartisan arrangement, and despite its detractors, I assured the public that our budget fully funded current as well as future benefits. Indeed, “the last thing we need[ed] to do is mess around with Social Security.” [3]

To help ensure the protection of Social Security, we agreed to separate the Social Security system from the Federal budget, and to protect it from other governmental functions borrowing out of the Trust Fund surplus through a “firewall” procedure.
[4] Our goal was to stop the flow of Social Security surplus funds directly to reducing the overall deficit, when short-term shocks had already proven powerful enough to cause a short-term shortfall for the program in the early 1980s. We were determined not to end up in the scenario that brought about Social Security insolvency back then.[5]

To the end, I maintained the sacrosanct nature of Social Security, indicating that because it was projected to remain solvent through about 2030, we “ought not to mess with it.”
[6] If we were to get to 2030 and “it needs further adjustments then, it should be fixed then.”[7]

Editor's Note

President Bush Sr. accomplished little in the overall Social Security debate, opting instead to ride on the coattails of a successful two-term Republican stint by his precessor, Ronald Reagan. His basic position was to maintain social security as it was. He emphasized consistently that Social Security was sacred, and he was not afraid of endorsing it fully, even as a Republican.

Bush Sr.'s lack of action is due in large part to the lack of a short-term crisis like Reagan experienced. Without the impetus that seems to be required in the Social Security debate for meaningful reform, there was no reason to attempt any major changes to improve long-term solvency. Bush Sr. endorsed this view in its entirety, asking why we should fix a system that is not broken. This showed significant partisan lack of farsight, as he strove to maintain a widely Republican status quo and push the long-term problems of solvency to the next generation of political leaders.

In contrast to the tough times faced by previous presidents, Bush inherited a relatively stable Social Security system that was actually running a surplus. Even so, he struggled with heavy deficits, which made these surpluses prime targets for deficit reduction. The Social Security system would again be left vulnerable to economic fluctuations, partisan debate, and the postponement of the ultimate question of controlling costs while maintaining benefits.

[1] The President’s News Conference, January 24, 1990. Retrieved from

[2] Ibid
[3] Ibid
[4] Letter to Congressional Leaders on Social Security, April 23, 2011. Retrieved from
[5] Ibid
[6] Question-and-Answer Session in Atlanta, Georgia, October 20, 1992. Retrieved from
[7] Ibid


  1. President Bush Sr. basically stagnated Social Security reform during his tenure. How did the lack of urgency interact with Bush's decisions and does it signal an indefinite struggle between the short and long term, and solutions versus reelection in American politics?

  2. I think this assessment is rather unfair to Bush. In one sense, it is heavily presentist, assuming that he should have viewed the situation from our own (quite possibly flawed) assumption of crisis - even though that crisis was not fully evident at the time of his presidency. More broadly, this gets to the question of what constitutes long-term thinking that I raised in the previous comment. Also, recall that Bush raised taxes in 1991 to address the deficit (which, incidentally, contributed significantly to the surpluses of the late '90s) - despite paying a heavy political price. So I would seriously reconsider this assessment.