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Bush offers up 'ownership society'

Following a long tradition of draping complex policy in catchy themes, President Bush is offering Americans 'an ownership society' that promises more control, but more risk as well.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Richard Nixon promised a “new American revolution.” Ronald Reagan pushed his “new federalism.” Bill Clinton invoked a “new covenant.” Now, George Bush is offering Americans a new, expanded “ownership society.”

It’s part of a long tradition in which politicians try to tie grand thematic ribbons around their policy agendas. But few such slogans attain the enduring stature of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal or Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.

More typical are the less memorable attempts like those of Nixon, Reagan and Clinton.

“You can envision the meeting where people sat around trying to come up with a grandiloquent name,” says former Clinton speechwriter Michael Waldman, about what he called Bush’s latest “attempted bumper sticker.”

Promise of more control, independence
Bush is placing new emphasis on restructuring Social Security, the centerpiece of his ownership pitch, as he lays out his second-term priorities in Wednesday’s State of the Union address and his 2006 budget next week.

The phrase “ownership society” began popping up in presidential speeches three years ago, as Bush took note of the growing numbers of Americans who own stock and of the importance of home ownership.

As early as February 2002, Bush said at a conference on retirement savings, “I want America to be an ownership society, a society where a life of work becomes a retirement of independence.” Even as Texas governor, he told senior citizens: “Ownership in our society should not be an exclusive club. ... Everyone should be a part owner in the American dream.”

Since then, Bush has tried to turn the notion of an “ownership society” into the unifying theme for a host of proposals that would give individual Americans more control — and risk — in programs such as Social Security and health care savings accounts.

In his Jan. 20 inaugural address, Bush offered a grand vision of newly empowered Americans: “To give every American a stake in the promise and future of our country, we will bring the highest standards to our schools, and build an ownership society. We will widen the ownership of homes and businesses, retirement savings and health insurance preparing our people for the challenges of life in a free society.”

The president’s Social Security plan is expected to be released late this month or in March.

Stretching back to Aristotle
While the details may be new, the ownership concept is not.

Tom Palmer, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, traces its origins through the country’s Founding Fathers and back to Aristotle, the Greek philosopher and political theorist.

“What belongs in common to the most people, is accorded the least care,” Aristotle wrote. “They take thought for their own things above all, and less about things common.”

Casting the same thought in more modern terms, Palmer explains: “Anyone who’s ever lived in a college dorm room with a multitude of other people knows how that works. When no one is responsible, then the dishes just stack up in the sink.”

In certain respects, Americans already do have growing “ownership.” The home ownership rate was a record 69 percent in 2004, compared with 64 percent a decade earlier. About half of all Americans now own mutual funds, compared with a quarter of households in 1990, a trend primarily driven by the shift from company pension programs to 401(k)s.

Sugar-coated risk
Gary Schatsky, a financial planner in New York, says many of those people have been forced into the stock market, and they haven’t proven good stewards.

“Average Americans are not great investors, almost by definition, because they’re not sophisticated, they’re average,” he said. “When the market was decimated, a lot of people didn’t expect it, couldn’t account for it and are having difficulty recovering from it.”

Bush’s detractors say the president is taking the noble idea of an “ownership society” and using it to sugarcoat a scheme that would unwisely saddle ordinary Americans with even greater risks and costs for Social Security, health care, retirement benefits and other programs.

“Hokum, that’s a good word for it,” says former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich. “They have a knack for putting labels on their policies that stand for exactly the opposite of what the policies aim to achieve.”

But will it stick?
The shelf life of Bush’s “ownership society” in the American lexicon ultimately will be tied to whether he gets his proposed agenda through Congress and how Americans view any resulting changes.

Grover Norquist, president of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, predicts Bush will be well remembered for nurturing ownership “long after people can no longer pronounce or spell Fallujah.”

But Wayne Fields, a political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis and expert on political rhetoric, doubts the president’s slogan will endure.

Still, Fields says that for now, at least, “it’s a catchy way to take lots of complicated stuff and make it somehow seem both understandable and inherently American.”