By William M. Welch and Richard Benedetto
Halfway through his administration's "60 Stops in 60 Days" national sales pitch for overhauling Social Security, President Bush hasn't sold his plan to create private investment accounts.
His poll numbers have declined. Opponents claim momentum. And the president has been forced to focus on maintaining support among Republicans; he has yet to sway a single Democrat in Congress.
Bush and other administration officials spent much of March barnstorming the country, holding campaign-style rallies before audiences often screened to exclude dissenters. They have exceeded one goal already: As of today, more than 100 events have been held. About two dozen officials have participated, including Vice President Cheney, Treasury Secretary John Snow and other Cabinet members.
But along the way, they have been met by a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign from AARP, the powerful seniors' group. Organized labor and groups tied to Democrats have organized protests at many GOP events. As a result, little progress has been made.
Sniping takes root
"Bush used his conversations with the public to great positive effect during the campaign, but with Social Security, it doesn't seem to be working," said Robert Schmuhl, professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame.
Even among Republicans, sniping and criticism have taken root. Conservative groups such as the Club for Growth have opposed broadening the wage base for Social Security payroll taxes to help extend its solvency. They have begun running ads targeting Bush's allies, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has urged Bush to accept higher payroll taxes.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who appeared with Bush in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, credits the president with raising public awareness of Social Security's long-term financial problems. Grassley said he will try to push legislation this year, but he voiced renewed skepticism about the chances for an overhaul that uses payroll taxes to create investment accounts.
"The jury's still out on that ... based upon the 14 town meetings I had," he said. "I've always said it's a heavy lift."
Polls show Bush getting low marks for his handling of the Social Security issue, with public support for personal investment accounts dwindling. A USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll taken March 18-20 found just 40% approved of his approach to the problem. A March 22-24 poll for Time magazine found 31% approved of Bush's handling of the issue, down from 40% in mid-January.
Still, Bush has succeeded in raising awareness of the 70-year-old retirement system's fiscal health. In a March 7-10 Gallup Poll, only Iraq topped Social Security as a more important problem. Social Security was ahead of the economy, terrorism, health care, education and fuel prices. In October, before Bush began pushing the issue, Social Security ranked behind all of them.
"There's been a remarkable change in tone from whether or not there is a problem to how do we fix the problem," said Rob Nichols, assistant Treasury secretary for public affairs. "The acknowledgement of the problem is one big step forward."
Focus on GOP
Bush's first events to highlight Social Security were aimed at moderate Democrats in Congress who were considered potential supporters. Since then, he has focused much of his attention on Republican audiences. Bush's event Wednesday was in the district of moderate Republican Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa. Cheney recently appeared in GOP strongholds in California.
Greg McDermott, the Republican mayor of Westfield, N.J., where Bush visited March 4, said the president's stop "has people talking about" Social Security. But he said reaction to the private investment accounts has been mixed.
"Some people like it, and some people don't," McDermott said. "The president has got to find a way to address the concerns some people have."
Schmuhl, the Notre Dame professor, said a Bush event in his area didn't seem to change people's positions. "There seemed to be little consequence," he said. "Not long after the president was here, Vice President Cheney was interviewed on a local station. That indicates that they are still trying to gain support."