Bush Continues Social Security Campaign

"I think the American people understand we've got a problem," said President Bush, shown with Milwaukee workers. (By Kevin Lamarque -- Reuters)
By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 20, 2005

MILWAUKEE, May 19 -- The obligatory campaign-style signs were hung behind the stage, the familiar hand-selected "conversation participants" seated next to him. The friendly, invitation-only audience cheered with appropriate enthusiasm. And when President Bush took the microphone, he spun out more or less the same speech he has given dozens of times before.

On the 78th day of a 60-day roadshow, the president's nationwide Social Security tour, even to some of his own aides, has the feel of a past-its-prime Broadway production that has been held over while other, newer shows steal the spotlight.

On Capitol Hill, they are talking about filibusters, on Embassy Row about the civilian massacre in Uzbekistan, at the Pentagon about the latest surge in violence in Iraq. But Bush keeps plugging on, pounding home a practiced message on Social Security that polls show so far has not sold the country.

"I'm just beginning this debate," Bush said in an appearance at the Milwaukee Art Museum, his 32nd Social Security event this year. "I'm going to spend whatever time it takes to continue traveling this country and make it absolutely clear to the people, we've got a problem."

Bush has effectively extended what was supposed to be a two-month barnstorming tour after running into a solid wall of Democratic opposition and a lukewarm reception by many congressional Republicans. While hearings on Social Security resumed Thursday on Capitol Hill, Bush has found it difficult to build political momentum behind his plan and many GOP strategists privately believe he faces a potentially debilitating domestic defeat.

As the president winged his way to Milwaukee, the Democratic author of Bush's proposal to scale back future benefit increases for middle-class and wealthy Americans came out against the other, more central aspect of the president's blueprint: private investment accounts for Social Security recipients using diverted payroll taxes.

"Given the lack of bipartisan support for carve-out personal accounts, the president should not insist on carve-out accounts if the Democrats support an overall legislative package for Social Security reform that is otherwise satisfactory to him," Richard Pozen, a Boston investment executive, said in a statement.

Bush has refused to say anything of the sort, and White House aides and outside allies believe that the best way to overcome Beltway resistance is for the president to keep up the pressure around the country.

"I think it helps," said Charles Black, a Republican strategist and lobbyist who advises the White House. "We know the 60-day tour he's done has elevated this issue and educated the public. The president, even though he's not campaigning on it every day anymore, does need to keep touching on the issue once or twice a week just to keep it on the agenda."

Stephen Moore, outgoing head of the Free Enterprise Fund, a group that advocates limited government and economic growth, said the primary audience for Bush's trip was actually in Washington. "The fundamental message of this road trip is that George Bush has not thrown in the towel," he said.

His opponents saw a different lesson in the president's peripatetic itinerary. "Evidently the 60-day tour didn't succeed in convincing anyone," said Linda Honold, chairwoman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party. "Every time he goes in, it seems more people decide this is not a good idea."

Recent polling provides ammunition for that thesis. Surveys by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press indicate that support for Bush's proposed private accounts fell from 58 percent last September to 44 percent in March before inching back up to 47 percent this month. "He hasn't recovered the ground he's lost [since] before he started campaigning on it," said Andrew Kohut, the center's director.

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