So, take the show on the road
Selling Social Security reform the hard way--one skeptic at a time
No, as it turns out, his run for another four-year lease on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue wasn't George W. Bush's last campaign after all. His current battle to overhaul Social Security is taking on all the aspects of another national plebiscite, with its customary grass-roots hoo-ha, media sniping, and edgy TV ads. It's standard fare, Lord knows. But Bush's problem is that so far, it just doesn't seem to be working.
The president's effort took another big hit last week. Polls showed him losing ground in trying to build support for private retirement accounts, the centerpiece of his proposed restructuring of Social Security. The portion of Americans who favor private accounts has dropped to 46 percent, down from 54 percent in December, according to the Pew Research Center. Andrew Kohut, the group's president, says opposition is "much higher among those who have heard a lot about the plan than among those who are less familiar with it."
The news from Capitol Hill is just as bad. After assessing reaction at town meetings during the recent congressional recess, many legislators have refused to join the president's bandwagon. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada says all 44 Senate Democrats and independent Jim Jeffords of Vermont remain united in opposition to the Bush overhaul. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee said last week that a vote on the president's plan might have to be postponed until next year, then switched gears a day later and said a vote was needed this year.
In response, Bush is pushing harder than ever. He privately told congressional leaders that he has just begun to fight and will "go all-out" in coming weeks. "The Democrats want to declare this DOA, and we expected that," says a senior White House official. "But the president is fully committed to getting Social Security passed this year." To that end, White House strategists have mapped out what they call a "60 events in 60 days plan," which continues this week with Bush appearances in Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Tennessee. In reality, the campaign will be a lot more extensive than that, U.S. News has learned; White House strategists want to retain some element of surprise. Bush's private schedule has him visiting at least 13 states this month. Some of his trips will be designed to put pressure on Democrats who face re-election in pro-Bush states. But an equally important goal will be bolstering congressional allies under assault at home. Also participating over the next two months will be Vice President Dick Cheney, cabinet officers led by Treasury Secretary John Snow, and members of Congress.
Step by step. "There are several phases to this," Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman told U.S. News. The first is to convince the public that Social Security is in trouble. The second phase is to explain the concept of private retirement accounts. (Bush wants to allow workers to divert up to 4 percent of an individual's Social Security payroll taxes into such accounts.) Finally, the administration wants to work with Congress on specific legislation.