Bush hones his pitch on retirement

The president pushes hard, as public remains wary of private Social Security accounts.

Roger and Peggy Carrell and her elderly mother lined up at 4:30 Friday morning to get a good seat at the Qwest Center for President Bush's Social Security roadshow. When they got inside, well in advance of the 8:30 start time, the Mutual of Omaha choir and a troupe of swing dancers revved up the crowd, which grew to more than 10,000 people.

There's no doubt the city of Omaha - including the anti-Bush protesters outside the arena - was excited about a rare presidential visit. But it's also clear that Mr. Bush still faces an uphill climb in selling a plan for partial privatization of Social Security, even after a five-state blitz before sympathetic audiences.

"Some people think he's trying to take away Social Security from everyone," says Mr. Carrell, who owns a surveying company. "The information he gave out is what everyone needs to look at. But I don't know how you do that, because you're getting all these negative people."

The Omaha event had a similar structure to the others: There were the visuals - a big chart showing how the number of workers supporting each beneficiary has shrunk since 1950 from 16 to 3.3. Another graphic showed how in 2018, incoming payroll taxes will no longer cover all the promised Social Security benefits and by 2042, the system will be insolvent.

Bush energetically strode across the stage, microphone in hand, and made his pitch - a more conversational version of his State of the Union appeal to revamp the retirement system. Then he settled into a chair alongside a preselected panel - one expert and four "regular folks" who represented different demographic groups, including a42-year-old employee of Omaha Steaks with a wife and three kids and a 57-year-old divorced secretary with three grown children. One is mentally challenged.

In this chat-show portion of the event, Bush asks every panel member to tell his or her story, which includes, of course, a conclusion that allowing younger workers to put some of their Social Security withholding into a personal retirement account, invested conservatively in stocks and bonds, is the way to go. (For details on Bush's plan, see chart.)

The inheritability of such accounts is another appealing feature. To Rose Davis, who teaches at a community college, that factor is central: When her single mother died in December at age 67, all the payroll taxes she had put into Social Security over the years remained in the system, and won't go to either of her adult daughters - including Ms. Davis's sister, who has three children and who gave up her business to care for her ailing mother. Now, says Davis, she has to help support her sister's family.

"In other words," Bush amplified, "if you're dying earlier than expected, the money you put in the system simply goes to pay somebody else. One of the benefits of an 'ownership society' is you could decide what to do with your own assets. Remember, it's your money to begin with."

The lone heckler in the hall, who was removed, was not the only one not completely sold on Bush's plan - especially when it remains unclear how the government would fund the $1 trillion-plus transition costs and by how much the government will reduce guaranteed benefits to address the solvency issue.

Steven Oltmans, general manager of the Papio-Missouri River natural resources district and near retirement, thinks personal accounts could be an acceptable addition to the Social Security system, "on a very well-controlled basis."

He still clearly feels stung by the lurches in the stock market in recent years - "between 1998 and 2002, I made some not-good choices on stock." And he agrees with Bush that the government should steer investors to conservative options when it comes to the privatized portion of Social Security.

Mr. Oltmans's biggest concern over the president's plan is that the government not add to its debt to revamp Social Security. But even if he's holding back just a bit from a full-bore endorsement, he gave the president high marks for presentation and for being proactive.

"The biggest thing I saw was that he's got the gumption and courage and leadership to address the issue," says Oltmans. "Whether he succeeds is another matter."

Nebraska's political elite, nearly all Republicans and present in the arena, were also withholding a full-fledged endorsement of Bush's plan - not out of any disloyalty to the president but more likely out of a sense of caution natural to politicians. Public opinion toward partial privatization of Social Security is very much a mixed bag in opinion polls.

Indeed, surveys show that views are still fluid, and poll results often depend on how questions are asked. In a Newsweek survey taken in the two days after Bush's State of the Union speech, 56 percent of Americans said they are wary of putting retirement money into the stock market. In another poll, by CNN/USA Today/Gallup, 66 percent of people who watched Bush's speech said his Social Security proposals will move the country in the right direction. That was up from 51 percent of Americans surveyed before.

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska is widely thought to be considering a presidential run in 2008, and while he supports personal retirement accounts, he appears unwilling to get out ahead of the public on the issue and isn't pushing for early consideration in Congress.

"There's no question this is a tough sell," said Senator Hagel, who is preparing to unveil his own plan for Social Security in the next few weeks. "Social Security has probably been the most successful, important program we've had in government. Everyone is touched; there should be questions." He expressed doubt over whether a bill could be passed this year. "Next year is OK," he said.

In a way, the more important US senator in the hall was Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat who faces reelection in 2006. While most Senate Democrats have come out firmly against Bush's plan, Senator Nelson says he's still open to the idea. And for that, the man Bush calls "Benator" earned a limousine ride with the president to the airport on his way out of town.

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