MILWAUKEE, Sept. 14 -- Sen. John F. Kerry, stepping up his campaign to convince voters President Bush is dishonest, told a group of seniors Tuesday that the White House attempted to conceal government statistics showing the elderly will soon pay a much bigger share of their Social Security income on Medicare expenses.
"Once again, this administration hides the truth from the American people," Kerry said at the St. Ann Center here.
Aides say Tuesday's message speaks to a larger point Kerry believes he has to make to win, which is that Bush has misled the public on issues from war to health costs. "You know how to tell the truth and see the truth and understand it and make a choice about it," Kerry told the seniors.
After spending much of his time talking about his policies throughout the campaign, Kerry is shifting his focus to and sharpening criticism of Bush's first term in office. Some Democrats worry Kerry may have waited too long to shape voters' views of Bush. A top aide said Kerry was told several months ago he needed to adopt a more aggressive message, but the Democratic nominee and some top advisers resisted. Instead, Kerry's message and slogans have changed frequently, sometimes from event to event, prompting the recent shakeup in the communications department.
The campaign announced another big-name hire from the Clinton era: Michael McCurry, the former White House spokesman, will travel with Kerry and help shape the candidate's message. With McCurry joining the recently arrived Joe Lockhart (who succeeded McCurry at the White House podium) and strategists Joel Johnson and Doug Sosnick, the Kerry campaign is increasingly looking like a restoration of the Clinton political machine. The Clinton team took over Kerry's policy shop a long time ago.
Kerry's attack here stemmed from the decision by the Bush administration to break from past practice by excluding from the 2004 report on Medicare information showing that a typical 65-year-old will spend 37 percent of Social Security income on Medicare co-payments, premiums and other related expenses in 2006, a sharp rise from previous estimates.
Since the GOP convention, Kerry has been talking about a pattern of deceit emerging on an issue dear to most seniors: First, the White House admitted it concealed the true cost of its Medicare bill -- $534 billion vs. the $400 billion it told Congress before it was signed into law, and now it has become clear the law will cost seniors more than some previously understood. The message seemed to resonate with the small group of seniors gathered at Tuesday's events.
"They do not want you to know the facts," Kerry said.
Mark McClellan, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said the reason seniors will see a much larger portion of their 2006 Social Security benefit going to Medicare is that the federal health program will provide broader coverage, most notably of prescription drugs.
Next year, the average 65-year-old Medicare beneficiary will receive about $1,000 a month from Social Security and will spend 20 percent on Medicare premiums and co-payments. The typical senior will spend an additional $240 a month on medication and other services not covered by Medicare.
The formula will shift in 2006, when the new drug benefit will be implemented, McClellan said. Medicare costs will consume more than 37 percent of a retiree's Social Security benefit, according to projections by government actuaries. But "the actuary estimates the typical beneficiary will have out-of-pocket savings of $1,240," he said in an interview.
McClellan said the math should work out in most seniors' favor. Nevertheless, Democrats complained bitterly that the Bush administration was keeping controversial information from the powerful elderly voting block by redesigning the chart distributed this year. McClellan brushed off the charges, noting that a bipartisan committee signs off on release of the annual Medicare Trustees Report.
In addition to the attacks on Bush's domestic policies, the new team has brought about Kerry's tougher line on Iraq. In a statement released after Bush addressed the National Guard Association, Kerry said: "I'll be straight with the American people: Things are getting worse. . . . The situation is serious, and we need a president who will set a new direction and be straight with the American people."
During his first campaign trip to Oregon on Tuesday, running mate John Edwards jumped in, too, accusing the Bush administration of causing "the most fiscally irresponsible turnaround in our country's history."
Discussing Bush at a stop at Clackamas Community College near Portland, Edwards said: "I think he believes he's Ken Lay and America is his Enron. The truth of the matter is that what happens when CEOs run a company the way George Bush has run America, is they get fired."
Bush and Cheney "will say just about anything," Edwards said. "But there's one important thing they won't say, which is how they're going to pay for these ideas that they're proposing. What they don't want people to know is they're proposing another $3 trillion of spending and they have no way to pay for it."
The attacks on the Bush administration's fiscal policy were sharper and more detailed than those Edwards has been delivering recently in his standard stump speech. Aides said the comments were in part prompted by a story in Tuesday's Washington Post detailing the possible costs of Bush's proposed policies. Independent domestic policy experts consulted for that story estimated that the combination of tax cuts and expanded programs Bush has proposed would cost $3 trillion over a decade.
Snyder is traveling with Edwards; staff writer Ceci Connolly in Washington contributed to this report.