President Bush poured out his most politically confrontational rhetoric since his reelection to a huge gathering of Republican donors last night, asserting that Democrats "stand for nothing but obstruction" on Social Security and other issues on his agenda.
Bush has been working to enlist Democrats in his plan to revamp Social Security, but his remarks showed frustration with the opposition's unified refusal to negotiate unless he backs off key tenets of his plan.
"This is not leadership," he scolded, speaking in a vast hall at the Washington Convention Center that was bathed in blue light. "It is the philosophy of the stop sign, the agenda of the roadblock, and our country and our children deserve better."
Republican congressional aides said that by framing Democrats as obstructionist, he is beginning to insulate himself against possible defeat on Social Security. Administration officials said he is as determined as ever.
Bush, referring repeatedly to Democrats as "the other party," was addressing a crowd of 5,500 at a "President's Dinner" that raised $23 million for the two Republican congressional campaign committees. It was one of the few audiences in which he could count on drawing hearty applause, and even a few whoops, for his plan to curb future Social Security benefit increases for middle- and upper-income Americans, while allowing workers to divert a portion of their salaries into personal accounts. Lower-income workers would receive benefits now scheduled.
Bush spoke in front of a stage set of the east front of the White House, complete with fake lights in the windows. That produced the effect in still photographs of the president speaking in his driveway.
"It is not right to sit here in Washington, D.C., knowing the system is going bankrupt for younger Americans and not do anything about it," he said. "I'm going to keep talking about it and keep putting ideas out."
Polls have shown that more people now believe Social Security has a long-term solvency problem, but a five-month drumbeat by the White House has not moved public opinion toward his solution.
Bush said he has "laid out some plans that would nearly fix all of the Social Security problem." The White House has said the plans he has outlined would close about 70 percent of the gap that is projected to open between promised Social Security benefits and the taxes that will be owed. In contrasting the two parties, Bush said that the Democratic approach "is to simply do nothing -- to delay solutions, obstruct progress, refuse to take responsibility." He called Republicans the party of optimism and big goals -- "the party of reform."
Earlier in the day in State College, Pa., Bush had taken a more conciliatory line, challenging congressional Democrats and others opposed to his plan to "put your ideas on the table." Before that, he had helped raise $1.5 million for the reelection campaign of Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), a top target of Democrats in the 2006 midterm elections. The event was held out of public view at the home of real estate developer Mitchell Morgan in the Philadelphia suburb of Bryn Mawr.
At the congressional dinner, where Bush posed for 175 photos with donors, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.) said Republicans "cannot allow ourselves to get pulled into that sniping, that negativity" of the Democrats.
Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was the object of several one-liners by congressional leaders. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) -- referring to Dean, a fellow physician, as "Dr. No" -- said he had hoped the opposition's chairman would be at the dinner. "But, sadly, he couldn't make it," Frist said. "He's too busy helping us expand our Republican majority."
The House chairman for the dinner, Rep. Jack Kingston (Ga.), noted Dean's assertion that the GOP is made up largely of white Christians and said that if that is the case, the evening had been "one heck of an altar call."
Fletcher reported from State College.