"They had a couple people on the staff come down and introduce us all," he recalled. "We all went into a small room, and they told us what they were looking for was what our ideas were on the president's Social Security plan." By then, he said, the interview process had thinned out the group. "They found out how we felt about it, and I guess that's how we got chosen."
With signs saying "Protecting our Seniors" flanking him, the president talks at length at these events about his desire for bipartisanship and a solution to save a troubled system for future generations. Nothing is said of the benefit cuts White House officials privately acknowledge will be part of any Social Security deal.
President Bush listens to retiree Helen Lyons, left, during a presentation on Social Security in Shreveport, La.
(J. Scott Applewhite -- AP)
The mood and conversation inside the room are often at odds with what is happening outside. More than a month after Bush began his campaign to restructure Social Security, politicians and the public are deeply divided over private accounts and the tax increases, benefit cuts or both that experts say are sure to accompany them.
Unlike the seniors at these events, most older Americans, when polled, express deep skepticism about private accounts. And many Republicans are dubious. Bush, who continues to calibrate his pitch, told the audience here the solution is simple: Members from both parties should lay down their arms, come to the table and hammer out a compromise.
"There's still people saying, 'I'm not so sure I want to get involved,' " Bush said. "Now is the time to put aside our political differences and focus on solving this problem for generations to come."
He made nearly half a dozen similar appeals, although the president has yet to engage many congressional Democrats personally. To illustrate his bipartisan ways, Bush invited former Democratic representative Tim Penny (Minn.) onto the stage to tell the audience that Social Security is an "urgent issue, and it's one that needs to be addressed sooner than later."
Next up was Mary Hines, a Social Security recipient who worked for 40 years as a secretary. "Are you worried about the reforms?" asked Bush, who is increasingly trying to convince skeptical seniors their benefits will go untouched.
"No," she said. "In fact, as we understand it, the reforms will not affect us."
Pastor Andrew Jackson of the Faith Temple Ministries Church of God praised Bush for tackling the issue and lamented what he described as some of the false charges made about the president's plan. "That's called political propaganda," Bush said.
Harry Summer testified to the benefit of "compound interest" in private accounts -- a point the president stresses at every stop.
And, finally, Karen Siegfried, representative of the younger generation that Bush says will benefit most from the plan, made a plea.
"I presume you expect Congress to get something done now, before it's too late?" Bush said.
"Yes, I do," she concluded.