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A Gambler Decides to Raise the Stakes

By Dana Milbank and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 29, 2005

President Bush made a huge gamble last night in a bid to restore momentum to his flagging proposal to restructure Social Security -- and to his presidency.

With two in three Americans disapproving of the way Bush has handled Social Security, many political observers thought it would be prudent for Bush to cut his losses and negotiate a bipartisan compromise on Social Security, perhaps without the personal accounts he has promoted for the past several months.

Instead, Bush held a prime-time news conference and doubled down on his bet. He continued to press for private accounts while adding a proposal that would cut Social Security spending by $3 trillion over 75 years -- openly defying the longtime belief that proposing cuts in the beloved program is bad politics.

The president's gamble was presented modestly last night, as a plan to help the working poor. "I propose a Social Security system in the future where benefits for low-income workers will grow faster than benefits for people who are better off," he said in a brief opening statement.

Democrats immediately branded Bush's proposal a massive cut in Social Security. And conservative Republicans worried that the new plan would eventually doom the private accounts they prefer, and prove costly for the party in next year's midterm elections.

Whatever the merits of Bush's new proposal, the president has taken another one of the bold strokes that worked so well for him in his first term. After a 60-day campaign failed to produce enthusiasm for his proposal for personal accounts, Bush is trying to sell his plan as a boon to the working poor at the expense of wealthier Americans. This time, he is calculating that he can apply enough pressure on Democrats up for reelection in 2006 to support his plan.

The outcome of Bush's bet will have an impact far beyond Social Security. If he succeeds, he will regain control of a national agenda that has slipped from his grasp in recent months. If he fails, he risks early admission into the lame-duck status that eventually afflicts all second-term presidents.

One hundred days ago, Bush began his second term with great confidence and a bold agenda: He would enact major Social Security and energy legislation, and win confirmation of strong conservatives to top positions in the judiciary and throughout the administration. Expanded and unified Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress would approve his tax and spending cuts.

Instead, Bush finds that Americans have turned against him on Social Security, and some moderate Republicans are joining a united Democratic Party in opposition. A key Bush nomination -- ambassador to the United Nations -- is in trouble in the Senate, and the No. 2 Republican in the House, Tom DeLay (Tex.), is dogged by an ethics controversy. Meanwhile, high gas prices, jittery financial markets and criticism over the Terri Schiavo case have contributed to a Bush popularity that has equaled the lowest levels of his presidency.

Bush said last night that he is not discouraged by the reversals. "We're asking people to do things that haven't been done for 20 years," he said. "We haven't addressed the Social Security problem since 1983. We haven't had an energy strategy in our country for decades. So I'm not surprised that some are balking at doing hard work. But I have a duty as the president to define problems facing our nation and to call upon people to act. And we're just really getting started in the process."

Throughout his first term, Bush's bold strokes served him well: Despite losing the popular vote, he enacted major tax cuts and education legislation and led the nation in two wars. He repeatedly gambled on major policy matters by refusing to compromise -- and he repeatedly won, gaining more power each time.

But an end to Bush's winning streak in the second term could cause the opposite phenomenon. "It's important when a [president] makes a major decision, that is resolved in [his] favor more times than not," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). Otherwise, he said, presidential power is gradually drained.

Democrats, bludgeoned in the last election, have suddenly regained confidence. "He's going to continue a downward spiral of weakness," predicted Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster. "Weakness begets weakness and failure begets failure . . . The only way for him to get out of this downward spiral is to change the agenda."

White House aides took the risk of a nationally televised news conference because they know that the next few weeks will be crucial in determining the success of Bush's second term. Aides who dismissed talk of a second-term funk only weeks ago grant that the coming weeks represent a crucial test of Bush's strength.

"We acknowledge there is a lot noise coming out of Washington" about nominees and ethics, said a senior White House aide who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly. "The president is talking about two things people care about" -- energy and Social Security -- but "it is not necessarily getting through because we are competing with a lot of other story lines here."

By all accounts, the president is in a difficult position. He needs to rise above the "noise" to regain the advantage on Social Security and other big items. But he also needs to win battles over nominees to prove to lawmakers that he still has clout on the big issues.

White House aides told Bush the media would pounce on the end of his 60-day tour touting Social Security changes (Sunday) and the 100th day of his second term (Saturday), and the news conference offered Bush the opportunity to go on the offensive -- at least for an evening.

For months, Bush had resisted giving specifics about his plan other than saying it should include personal accounts. But declining to offer specifics became untenable. GOP pollster David Winston said Bush succeeded in convincing Americans there's a problem that needs fixing, but "there's a frustration" in the public because "there's a time delay between being convinced there's a problem and learning what the solution looks like."

Now that Bush has offered more specifics, he encounters a new set of risks. Democrats are ready to pounce on Bush for his plan to index benefits to prices rather than wages, which they say will mean a major benefit cut. "For the first time ever, you'll see a Social Security solvency plan that is solely based on deep cuts to the middle class," said Gene B. Sperling, who was President Bill Clinton's economic adviser.

And conservative Republicans will balk at his call last night for "progressive indexing," which would reduce future payments for middle- and upper-income retirees by linking increases to prices rather than wages. Stephen Moore, a leading proponent of personal accounts, warned of a "nightmare" in which benefit cuts "cost Republicans the Senate in 2006."

"He has a clear conundrum right now," Moore said.

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