Social Security blitz may have been a bust

by Anita Kumar

St. Petersburg Times

FALLS CHURCH, Va. - At a community center outside Washington on Friday, President Bush used familiar phrases, familiar props and familiar jokes to try to convince Americans that Social Security needs to be revamped.

It's the same show he has been putting on, day after day, for months.

Bush appears on stage with a group of hand-selected people who help bolster his plan allowing younger workers to invest a portion of their taxes in stocks and bonds. A carefully chosen audience sits in rapt attention.

Friday marked his last stop of his 60-city, 60-day Social Security blitz, and polls show he has less support for individual investment accounts than he had two months ago.

Even advocates of accounts say they fear that Bush's rare political miscalculation could mean the death of a Social Security proposal this year.

"A lot of us thought the stars were perfectly aligned to get this done this year. That's probably not the case," said Stephen K. Moore, president of the conservative Free Enterprise Fund, a leading supporter of personal accounts. "That's a politically realistic assessment."

Congress began debating Social Security this week, and Bush says he remains committed to the top domestic policy of his second term. He took his case to Americans on Thursday during a prime-time news conference, suggesting for the first time lowering benefits for higher-income workers to help solve Social Security's shaky finances.

But at the tour stop Friday, the president spoke less than a minute about his new proposal, reverting to the familiar script he has used at town hall meetings in 24 states.

"I'm confident we're going to get something done," Bush told 500 people at the James Lee Community Center. "I believe the more the people understand the nature of the problem ... the more they're going to be saying to those of us who are serving, go get it fixed."

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The refrain is the same: Social Security will be broke in less than 40 years, it won't be able to pay full benefits for today's younger workers.

"Fewer workers, paying greater benefits to more people living longer - that's the change in the math, that is what has changed from the time Franklin Roosevelt set up the program," Bush said in Falls Church.

In the past two months, Bush has sold the problem, but not the solution.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week found that public support for diverting payroll taxes to accounts has dropped 10 percentage points since March, to 45 percent; 51 percent were opposed.

More people oppose the accounts than at any time in recent history, including during President Bill Clinton's administration, when a similar idea was floated. In 2000, 64 percent polled supported accounts and 31 percent opposed them.

"Apparently the president of the United States is the only person in America who believes his 60-day road show went well," said Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the Democratic whip in the House. "However, not only are Democrats united against privatization, but the American people are now united against privatization."

What went wrong? How did a White House that has been masterful at dashing ahead on major issues, defining problems and offering solutions to win public support fail on the president's top priority?

Some say Bush may have incorrectly assumed that he had a mandate after the November election, even though the nation is divided. Others blame Bush's sliding approval ratings, and concerns about the economy and shaky stock market.

Mary Ann Ferguson, a public relations professor at the University of Florida following the Social Security debate, said Bush didn't give himself enough time to sell the American public.

"I don't think anyone could have gone out there and made those changes - it would have been a very difficult sell," she said. "This has been a part of our national psyche. That's a hard sell."

His unwillingness to provide details of his proposals allowed Democrats unified against private accounts to step in. They say that less dramatic changes, such as increasing payroll tax payments by upper-income workers, would be enough to fix future problems and that Bush's proposals would add trillions of dollars to the national debt.

"When the people in the White House sat down and wrote this plan, they did not anticipate all these criticisms," said Peter Ferrara, a Republican witness at a congressional hearing this week. "And their plan, regretfully, wasn't designed to deal with all these criticisms."

Even those who support Bush said he may have spent too much time explaining that the system was in trouble and not enough time on a solution or specifics.

"It's an issue that causes a visceral reaction from people," said Rep. Mark Foley, R-West Palm Beach. "And they didn't have enough information to make a prudent judgment."

The president has indicated that he will focus more on solutions. But is it too late?

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Republicans say they will consider only Social Security plans with investment accounts. Democrats say they will not support any plan that does.

That's why Bush's public relations campaign was so important.

"I think he actually played his hand extremely well, but it was a real weak hand," Urban Institute president Robert Reischauer said. "I take my hat off to the guy that he's hanging around and continuing doing this. It's quite an investment."

Even those who favor accounts acknowledge a bill will not pass unless a public groundswell for the legislation forces some members of Congress to reconsider their opposition. Because that hasn't happened, some say it's time to come up with an "exit strategy" - a minor compromise - and take another look later next year.

In its current state, Social Security will pay full benefits only until 2042; after that, only about 73 percent of promised benefits can be paid.

"We have to do a better job of educating people, but it may be too late," said Thomas Saving, a former member of the Board of Trustees of the Social Security and Medicare Trust Fund, who supports accounts.

At the Senate Finance Committee's first hearing Tuesday, some senators who had been courted by Bush indicated they were not on board.

"I've always been one who thought that there was a kernel of a good idea in individual accounts, but I never thought it was a good idea to finance personal accounts with massive debt," said Sen. Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat.

Sen. Olympia Snow, a Maine Republican, questioned whether the investment accounts are worth risking even more benefits.

"At what cost and at what risk is it worth starting to erode the guaranteed benefit?" she said.

The Senate and the House both pledge to have Social Security bills ready by this summer.

At the beginning of the year, Bush said he hoped to have a Social Security bill by May. He no longer talks of a timetable.