Tim Russert is NBC News’ Washington bureau chief and host of Meet the Press.  He regularly offers MSNBC.com’s readers his insight and analysis into questions about politics past, present and future.

MSNBC:  Tim, President George W. Bush has just finished his first primetime news conference in about a year.  What are your thoughts?

TimRussert:  First, it’s clear this president is deeply concerned about the energy problems in the country, particularly the high price of gasoline. He acknowledged there is no quick fix and it is having an effect on consumer confidence and job creation and the economy.

Secondly, on his plan laying out for Social Security - he called it a sliding scale in terms of benefits. Look for the Democrats to say that that plan would cut benefits anywhere from 20 to 40 percent for the next two generations of recipients and that will commence a very big battle on Capitol Hill.

Third, his answer on faith and judicial opponents - it is a clear break from what many of his supporters said this past Sunday; that these nominees were blocked because of their belief in faith. He said that is not the case. He thinks they are blocked because of the strict constructionists. That will cause unease amongst some Christian activists in the Republican Party.

MSNBC:  On religion, President Bush had an interesting answer to the question posed by NBC’s David Gregory.

Russert:  The president said, “religion is important to me and it is personal.” I think it is going to be a hot topic of debate when Christian conservatives and others say, “Wait a minute.  We believe, and have said, that judges are blocked because they are people of faith.” The president seemed to disagree with that.

It is clearly something along the issue of Terry Schiavo where many Republicans believe their party got way too far out front.  While others say, “No, we’re very comfortable being there.”

The president seems to be urging caution when it come to religion and politics

Video: Social Security proposal

MSNBC:  Did the president say, in effect, he’s going to “means test” Social Security if he can get his way?

Russert:  It'll be quite interesting to see how the Democrats parse that tomorrow. They'll begin to define "wealthy."

When people begin to understand it, it won't just be the very affluent but also vast parts of the middle-class, the Democrats will say, in the next generation, who'll receive a benefit cut of around 25 percent and then the following generation would be about 40% to 45%. That's off the benefits that you would get if the current plan stayed in place.

Now, both parties acknowledge something has to be done. But my sense is the Democrats will be very, very outraged, saying the president wanted to "cut Social Security."

MSNBC:  What about Mr. Bush’s admission that he cannot change the price of gas in the near term – that unless more crude oil is put on the market, we cannot reduce the prices at the pump?

Russert:  The president realizes that gasoline prices have been devastating to the American consumer and as they embark on their summer vacations, the cost of their mini vans, R.V.'s and station wagons, will be considerable to fill those tanks.

MSNBC:  In terms of political fire power, Tim, to take Social Security, with the people with higher incomes when they retire, and base it on prices rather than wages -- if that were to become law, wouldn’t that be a significant drop in their benefits?

Russert:  Yes, there's actually a chart has been created by various groups based on the commission that recommended that plan. They estimate in 2042, it'll be a 26% reduction in what they be expected under the current plan. And then in 2070, it'll be a 46% reduction. That's what the Democrats will be waving around tomorrow. Look for the Republicans to say, “What is the alternative if you don't want private personal accounts and you say they cost too much?  Here is the president trying deal with solvency. How would you do it?”

The Democrats' response thus far has been, roll back the Bush tax cut. That'll pay for some out-years. Perhaps we can look at age eligibility or look at in terms of cost of living increases.

It'll be a real test of wills to see whether or not both these parties are willing to come together, acknowledge a common problem and produce a common solution.

I don't think we'll see that tomorrow.

MSNBC:  Mr. Bush has been promising for all these months of discussion about Social Security reform that those retirees themselves and those near retirement -- I think that's been the president's phrase -- wouldn't be affected. Their benefit levels wouldn't be affected. Could his proposal Thursday be seen as a violation of that promise?

Russert:  No, because anyone 55 and older will be fully protected. They're grandmothered and grandfathered in. The interesting phrase the president used was that all recipients now and future recipients won't receive any benefits less than what the people are receiving now.

That's not factoring in the high cost of inflation. In order to keep up with inflation, what you'll hear Democrats say is, there's a real cut coming because of the president's plan on indexing or sliding scale, whatever. And that will commence this debate.

The Democrats believe they won the debate on private, personal accounts.

Starting now, the Democrats will begin to try to win the debate on "cutting benefits" without offering an alternative solution.


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