LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – President Bush continued to take his Social Security (search) reform plan on the road Friday in an effort to convince wary Americans and lawmakers on Capitol Hill to allow personal accounts (search) for young workers.
The president argued that the venerable retirement system needs major change to avoid going "flat bust" and warned reluctant Democrats and Republicans to avoid using "scare tactics" to mislead the nation's seniors into thinking they won't get the Social Security checks on which they depend.
"We're not going to play political gotcha," he said in a Little Rock, Ark., auditorium packed with supporters. "Dealing with the security of our youngsters is vital. ... Those are scare tactics. Now is not the time to make this issue a highly partisan issue — I really do mean that when I say that."
The president has made Social Security reform a centerpiece of his domestic agenda as he kicks off a second term in the White House; he dedicated a sizeable chunk of his State of the Union (search) address Wednesday night to the issue.
Bush was holding similar sales pitches on his Social Security plans in Omaha and Florida, following stops the previous day in North Dakota and Montana.
"You can see the mathematical problem, right? Greater promises to more people who are living longer with fewer payers," he said earlier at the Qwest Center-Omaha during a campaign-style road trip.
Each state is represented in the Senate by at least one Democrat who, because Bush won all five states in 2004, GOP strategists think might suffer politically if they don't support the president's plan. These lawmakers thus could be vulnerable to pressure from Bush's home-state drop-ins. Bush won all those states in last year's elections.
"It used to be people were afraid to talk about Social Security," Bush said. "Now I think people should be afraid not to talk about Social Security and start coming up with solutions."
So far, not a single Democrat has thrown his or her support behind the president's proposal. Some Republicans have even expressed concern about whether the proposed reforms could work.
"Politically speaking, right now it's probably not doable," said Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., citing lack of Democratic support.
As Bush on Friday threw around terms like "compounding rates of interest" and wielded detailed charts, his message to Congress was that the Social Security system should be radically altered.
He said his goal is to see the government retirement program more resemble the changing times, in which many Americans save for their own futures in 401(k) accounts (search) and other vehicles rather than depend on their employers or the government.
Bush has asked Congress to approve legislation that would put Social Security on permanent stable financial footing — which he says will be "flat bust" by 2042, when it will be able to cover only about 73 percent of benefits owed — and at the same time give younger workers the option of diverting up to two-thirds of their Social Security payroll taxes (search) into private accounts they could invest in stocks and bonds.
The Social Security retirement benefit they've been promised under the existing plan, however, would be cut, although by how much is not clear.
"Basically what we're talking about here is helping evolve the Social Security system, modernize the system, to reflect the current way people save," Bush said.
The lobbying also got personal, as Bush ran through his usual thank-you list to the bigwigs in his audience and singled out the Nebraska Democrat, Sen. Ben Nelson, he was in Omaha to target. Nelson is one of the Democrats who has seemed in public remarks most willing to consider backing Bush on Social Security.
"He is a man with whom I can work," Bush said, "a person who's willing to put partisanship aside to focus on what's right for America."
Shortly after he made that assertion, which many Democrats dispute, a heckler interrupted. "Quit lying. You're full of .… , you liar," he said from high in the arena. As Bush supporters nearby yelled the protester down, the president made the rare move of publicly responding, saying "We love free speech in America," before moving on with his sales job.
It's not an easy sell to any of the Democrats that Bush was trying to sway.
Nelson said Friday that he wished Bush would have disclosed more details of his plan when he outlined it Wednesday night in his State of the Union address.
"I'm looking to be supportive, but I can't support something until I see the entire plan," Nelson told reporters before the event in Omaha.
Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., talked to reporters before the event in an effort to buck up support for Bush's plan. "The president is right to take this on," Hagel said. "It's politically risky for him, and maybe others who support him, but I think the American public is very wise and understands that this is a program that's going to have to be reformed."
Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., said she was eager to work with Bush to make sure Social Security is solvent into the next century. "But I will not allow current benefits to be put at risk," she said in a statement.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said the White House staff had not contacted him on the issue, but for now he was leaning against the private accounts.
"I will fight against the cuts to Social Security benefits, the massive borrowing and increase in debt that this will create," he said in a phone interview.
On Thursday, Bush's stops in North Dakota and Montana felt like campaign events without the Bush-Cheney signs. Hundreds of people lined Bush's motorcade route in Great Falls, Mont., mostly to cheer the president's arrival. But not all were keen on Bush's ideas for Social Security.
"Do the math, George, it's the deficit," one man's sign said.
A woman carried a hot pink placard that read: "Keep your mitts off Social Security."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.