The topic was energy policy, but in the midst of his speech yesterday President Bush veered off to address older Americans concerned about his Social Security plan.
"I want all seniors here and seniors listening to know that nothing will change for you," he said, animated and leaning into the lectern. "You will get your Social Security check. The government will keep its promise."
Suddenly, wherever he goes, whatever he talks about, the president keeps circling back to that same point. As he struggles to find traction for his plan to revamp Social Security, Bush finds himself trying simply to neutralize the opposition of seniors who would not even be affected by his proposal. He came back to the subject four times in one forum last Friday, and when he returns to the road today for a two-day, four-state swing to pitch his plan, his first priority will be to calm the nerves of the retired and near-retired.
The constant repetition stems from what Republican strategists consider a critical vulnerability in their drive to reinvent Social Security: Older Americans remain deeply skeptical of Bush's plan, and historically they not only dominate political debate concerning the nation's retirement program but also play an outsized role in congressional elections because of their reliably high turnout.
Polls show that older Americans are twice as likely to oppose Bush's proposal to allow younger workers to divert some of their payroll taxes to personal investment accounts -- even though they would be exempt themselves. Focus group results presented to GOP congressional aides last weekend found many seniors skeptical that their benefits would be protected. That doubt has been fueled by Bush opponents, who have published and aired advertisements showing seniors fretting about benefit cuts.
Republican strategists have concluded that older Americans are the "gatekeeper" on the Social Security issue even if they would not be directly affected, and so they have begun targeting them. Treasury Secretary John W. Snow began the administration's 60-day public road show on Social Security last week with two days in Florida reaching out to retirees, and he plans to return. Jo Ann Davidson, the co-chairman of the Republican National Committee, will hold three town hall forums in Florida and Pennsylvania in coming days addressing seniors.
"That is a key part of this effort," Treasury Department spokesman Rob Nichols said. "We realize it's an important audience to speak to in our case and we will continue to do that to reassure seniors."
As they escalate their Social Security campaign, Bush aides believe they have made significant progress in convincing the nation that a problem exists but concede they need to do more to sell his solution. The Bush plan would allow workers born after 1950 to invest some Social Security payroll taxes in government-managed stock and bond accounts starting in 2009.
While 57 percent of respondents age 18 to 29 supported such a concept in a poll last month by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University, 30 percent of those 65 and older favored the idea. Overall, the proposal drew support from 34 percent of those 55 and older, compared with 51 percent of those younger than 55. The poll showed the problem is not simply awareness: 73 percent of respondents 55 and older understood that the plan would apply only to Americans who retire in the future.
"I don't think most of my members are ever going to feel like they're somehow immunized," said John Rother, policy director of AARP, a seniors advocacy group that opposes the Bush plan. "It's such an important and central program to their lives that any changes to it they're going to track very closely. They understand that change is going to be needed. It's not like they're going to be opposed to any change. It's just the change that the president has been talking about that they oppose."
Two thirds of retirees rely on their benefits for more than half of their income, and for nearly a quarter, Social Security checks are their only income.
In a March 1 strategy memo, Rick Santorum (Pa.), chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, urged colleagues to work with older constituents to explain Bush's plan. "We must continue to focus our message on problem definition and senior reassurance," he wrote. At the same time, he worried that the focus on older Americans could be a costly distraction. "We are behind in focusing our message on the youth -- mostly because we have needed to reassure current retirees and those nearing retirement that this debate is not about their benefits."
At a retreat at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia last weekend, a consultant warned GOP congressional leadership aides to court seniors more. Richard Thau, president of Presentation Testing Inc. and a Generation X advocate, reported that focus groups found deep doubts among older Americans. A Republican aide said: "The point he was trying to make . . . was that you can never relent in communicating with seniors." The retreat was first reported by Roll Call, a newspaper covering Congress.
Republicans complain that ads by AARP, MoveOn.org and other groups have fueled concern among seniors. One television ad by MoveOn.org shows aging workers in labor-intensive jobs arguing that Bush would cut benefits and force retirees back into jobs to survive. "It won't be long before America introduces the world to the working retirement," the narrator intones.
The group True Majority, founded by Ben Cohen, co-founder of the Ben & Jerry's ice cream company, began airing a radio ad in one Pennsylvania congressional district featuring an older man and woman. "How much of our Social Security have we lost in the market?" the woman asks. "I can't even think about it," the man answers. "I can't believe that this is what privatization did to Social Security -- instead of guaranteed benefits, now we've got this mess, Social Insecurity."
Bush has complained about such advertising in recent days. "I don't care what the ads say, I don't care what the scare tactics say, you're going to get your check," he said during a forum in New Jersey last week. He repeated that sentiment yesterday.
White House spokesman Trent Duffy said the ad blitz has taken a toll. "It's just a fact of life that the opponents are using it to stir questions and opposition to the modernization of Social Security. When you are faced with paid advertising, you have to confront that with whatever you have, and that includes the president's bully pulpit and that's what he's doing."
AARP's Rother defended such ads. "This is going to affect all taxpayers, seniors included," he said, adding: "There's no guarantee that any promises for seniors wouldn't be revisited."
Assistant polling director Claudia Deane contributed to this report.