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.
What's more, Kohut's latest poll suggested that Bush's association with the issue is costing both him and his proposals. Only 29 percent of Americans approved of the president's handling of Social Security, and Bush's overall job approval rating fell to an anemic 43 percent.
The poll released Thursday indicated that most Americans accept Bush's proposed cuts in future benefit increases -- until they learn that it is his plan. Under the progressive indexing proposal, advanced by Pozen and adopted by Bush last month, Social Security's long-term finances would be bolstered by ratcheting back the programmed growth of benefits for everyone but the poorest Americans, whose checks would continue to rise as planned. Middle- and upper-income recipients would still receive more than now, but not as much as promised.
In the Pew survey, 53 percent endorsed the idea while 36 percent opposed it, with greater support among Democrats than among Republicans. But when Pew changed the question to add the phrase "George W. Bush has proposed . . .," overall support fell to 45 percent and opposition grew to 43 percent. "Bush is a drag on the popularity of his own Social Security indexing plan," Kohut said.
Bush ignores the bad news and keeps hopping across the country on Air Force One, betraying no fear of failure. "I think we're going to get something done," he said Thursday. "I really do. I think the American people understand we've got a problem."
For his trip to Milwaukee, he tried to focus on younger workers who would be most affected by his plan, visiting the office of a Web site called OnMilwaukee.com where Andrea Marton, 23, told him she was "all for the Social Security reform," adding, "I think it's awesome."
Bush seemed to get in the spirit of things. At the later art museum forum, another young woman, Christy Paavola, 22, mentioned that she wanted to teach in a Lutheran school. "Awesome," he replied.
Still, the half-empty press charter and filing center Thursday spoke to the dwindling news media interest. None of the networks sent its regular White House correspondent. USA Today, the Washington Times and other papers that usually cover presidential trips saw no reason to cover this one. Even some White House aides weary of the barnstorming privately roll their eyes and groan at the notion of yet another Social Security trip.
Bush, himself, seemed to recognize that this was not going to lead the nightly news. "Look at it this way," he told the local crowd proud of its museum. "It's a chance to show it off for the world -- to the extent the world is watching C-SPAN."