WASHINGTON - In his fifth State of the Union address, President Clinton is expected this week to once again strike upon the importance of retirement savings, without taking a direct stand on any particular issue - including Social Security.
Generalities are expected, mostly because the administration doesn't have any breaking retirement initiatives, pension experts say. They also don't expect the president to make pensions a partisan issue as he did in his address last year.
"I see the president making reference to (the Clinton administration's) commitment to retirement security without specifying what these elements might be," said James Klein, president of the Association for Private Pension and Welfare Plans, Washington.
In his address last year, the president first called upon Congress to pass pension simplification, which it did late into the session. He also declared he would again veto any bill making it easier for companies to recapture surplus pension assets.
But the issues that became a part of his campaign last year aren't there this time around.
"In the current spirit of bipartisanship, he's not going to prey on this issue," Mr. Klein said.
The main focus of the speech, observers say, should be campaign finance reform and the 1998 fiscal budget - highlighting Medicare and education reform. The budget, to be released Feb. 6, is expected to include a special individual retirement account for educational purposes, which would allow parents to save for college tuition tax-free.
In his State of the Union address, the president is expected to highlight the importance of retirement security and the need to save for the future, experts agreed. He will most likely address the need to fix the Social Security system, but not offer any specific remedies. Also, he might key in on provisions included in a recently introduced retirement savings bill sponsored by Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D. Mr. Daschle's bill, the Retirement Security Act, focuses on improving pension access and coverage, pension security, portability and equity to women. The bill is similar to the initiative Mr. Clinton announced in April 1996.
Randy Hardock, partner at the Washington law firm of Davis & Harman and former benefits tax counsel at the Treasury Department, said the president might advocate the importance of pension portability, as proposed in Mr. Daschle's bill. But getting specific might be dangerous because portable pensions may not be something the general public understands.
IRAs are sure to get a mention, several said, noting several IRA bills were introduced early in the session.
Dennis Coleman, principal at the Kwasha Lipton Group, Fort Lee, N.J., said he hopes Mr. Clinton will address critical issues like Medicare and Social Security because he now has the opportunity to work with Congress and attack these problem areas.
"There are some long-term problems that no one has addressed for political reasons, and now a lame-duck president has the opportunity," Mr. Coleman said.
"I think he's really concerned about his legacy," Mr. Coleman added. "Unless he addresses these really pressing issues, he's not going to be looked on too fondly by the history books."
At the first press conference of his second term Jan. 28, the president said he could not support privatizing Social Security without knowing more about it.
"I would favor nothing that would compromise the integrity of the system," Mr. Clinton said. He also said changes are needed to lengthen the life of the Social Security system but did not offer specifics.
APPWP's Mr. Klein expects Mr. Clinton to stay away from the Social Security issue, mostly because there's no impending deadline for him to need to take a position. "Why should (Mr. Clinton) show his cards now?" he said. "The more immediate issue is Medicare."