Bush tack on Social Security: Be flexible, patient

As polls show sinking support for personal accounts, the president redoubles his efforts

The tectonic plates on Social Security reform shifted this week, making President Bush's goals appear less reachable - but no one should count him out.

That's the consensus of political analysts who have watched Mr. Bush for years, and see a shrewd operator at work. As the signature domestic initiative of Bush's second term, the effort to revamp Social Security poses a major challenge to Bush's reputation for getting things done. Various new polls show public support for Bush's ideas sinking.

Still, despite the nervousness some congressional Republicans brought back to Washington after hearing criticism from voters last week on Social Security reform, the White House shows no signs of abandoning its effort. In fact, it plans to push harder. Top administration officials, including Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Treasury Secretary Snow, will spend the next 60 days traveling to 60 cities to make the case for acting now to address the system's long-term solvency issues and for allowing individual investment accounts.

"What he's doing is what he's done with other major issues and it's quite clever, actually," says James Thurber, a political expert at American University. "He is stating some general objectives and in some cases even moving back from those objectives, then waiting for a plan to emerge."

The idea is to let members of Congress, for now mostly senators, come forth with different plans and let them sort through what is most doable. By maneuvering that way, Professor Thurber says, Bush is minimizing his risk and maximizing the potential that, ultimately, Congress will send him something he can sign and also call "Social Security reform."

The final product may not even contain a provision allowing younger workers to divert part of their payroll taxes into personal retirement accounts. Political Washington stood up and took notice on Wednesday when Treasury Secretary John Snow said the administration would not rule out the idea of new "add-on" accounts to Social Security - in other words, private investment accounts whose funds are not carved out of payroll taxes. It was unclear whether Secretary Snow had been authorized by the White House to make that suggestion, but at press time, no one from the administration had disavowed the remark.

Meanwhile, by announcing the big 60-day, 60-city tour, the administration has raised the stakes - and signaled that it believes it can calm down Republican lawmakers by turning around public opinion. Analysts believe the White House's own polling data show this is doable.

"We're seeing a big PR push to change the Gallup Poll numbers, so Congress will take the proposals more seriously," says Stephen Wayne, a government professor at Georgetown University. "He's trying to demonstrate that he has public backing."

By week's end, though, the numbers didn't look good for Bush. A Pew Research Center poll showed support for private accounts slipping to 46 percent. Last September, 58 percent of the public supported such accounts. A Gallup Poll taken in late February showed 35 percent of Americans approving of Bush's handling of Social Security and 56 percent disapproving.

The administration "believes that the Democrats and the AARP have scared people and that the Republicans are basically being influenced by these scare tactics; Republicans are chicken," says Professor Wayne. "From the start, this presidency has been one of action and strength and conviction. And he's been pretty successful at doing that, and he'll continue to do it. That's his style."

For now, supporters of personal accounts funded by a portion of payroll taxes are not giving up. Republican word-meister Frank Luntz, who runs polls and focus groups testing which terms are most effective, believes that what's needed is time and education of the public.

"It takes a while to communicate something so ingrained as a change to Social Security," says Mr. Luntz. "It takes time, it takes patience, and most importantly, it takes repetition."

Luntz says he agrees with 99 percent of the president's communication effort, and disagrees only with Bush's attempt to frame the future of Social Security as being in crisis. "Let the public decide how bad the problem is," he says. "Argue over the principle of strengthening Social Security, not the condition of Social Security."

Some conservative commentators have argued that by naming years far in the distance - specifically, 2018 and 2042 - as benchmarks for serious problems in Social Security, the president is selling his plan ineffectively. For young workers in particular, the concept of retirement is so theoretical and those years seemingly so far away that a sense of urgency is hard to generate.

The president should not talk about the year 2018, says Luntz. He should say "just over a decade from now a majority of baby boomers will be retiring."

For now, congressional Democrats have presented a nearly solid wall of opposition to partial privatization. Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska, who faces reelection next year and comes from a solidly Republican state, has been the president's leading hope for breaking that wall. But so far, he is hanging back.

Nebraska's other senator, Republican Chuck Hagel, plans to unveil legislation Monday on Social Security, including personal accounts carved out of payroll taxes and as-yet unrevealed measures to make the system solvent. Another Republican senator, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, has been working on his own proposal, which includes a provision to raise the cap on income subject to payroll taxes. Senator Nelson has taken part in meetings with Senator Graham on his plan, but so far, no one plan has emerged as the main vehicle for action.

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