RALEIGH, N.C. – President Bush (search), on a trip to pitch his Social Security plans, tried on Thursday to calm restive Republicans who fear the political consequences of supporting his idea for personal retirement accounts.
"I believe candidates are rewarded, not punished, for taking on tough issues," Bush said. "I say that to give assurance to the members of Congress who may feel somewhat fearful of taking on the issue."
Counting Bush's stop later in the day in Pennsylvania, the president has visited seven states since the Jan. 20 inauguration to host Social Security (search) events, all town hall-style meetings with a campaign trail flair.
On one side outside a performing arts center in Raleigh, men sold Bush inauguration bears and political buttons. On the other side, a boisterous group of protesters waved neon yellow, commercially made signs that said "Hands off my Social Security." A homemade one said "Mr. Bush, where is my invitation to the Raleigh town hall meeting?"
The message, scrawled next to a sad face, was a critique of the friendly crowds assembled for the events. The president got plenty of praise from the audience inside. One man thanked Bush for bringing faith back to the White House; a standing ovation followed.
Bush is trying to mobilize support for his efforts to change Social Security, in addition to reassuring workers over age 55 that their benefits will not change under his proposal.
Bush's plan would allow younger workers to divert two-thirds of their Social Security taxes into private accounts that could be invested in stocks and bonds. Contributions would be capped at $1,000 a year, at first, then rise by $100 annually. The rest of the Social Security taxes would continue to go into the system to help pay traditional benefit checks.
It's unclear how much lower those traditional checks would be because all Social Security benefits are likely to be reduced in the future to put the system on sound financial footing.
"If you've retired, the system is in good shape for you," Bush said at a community college in Blue Bell, Pa., outside Philadelphia. "You don't have a darn thing to worry about. I don't care what the ads say. I don't care what the spinners say. You're in good shape. The system will meet its promises to you."
He tried to lure support from moderate Democrats and Republicans, including some worried that they will lose voters' support in the 2006 midterm elections.
"This is policy at its most pure," Bush said. "The best way to deal with it is for there to be an honest discussion about different solutions without fear of political reprisal."
At the same time, all the stops on his swing through the nation have political ramifications for his proposal.
His trips earlier in the month to Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, Arkansas and Florida were designed to focus on moderate Democratic senators wary of his idea.
Bush went to North Carolina partly because Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole embraces Social Security overhaul so much that she pitched personal retirement accounts in her 2002 campaign.
During a recent political retreat, Senate and House Republicans cited Dole as an example of a lawmaker who could support personal accounts and survive the next election.
Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., supports the idea and says he would run on the issue in 2006. But Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., opposes cuts in Social Security benefits to future retirees — a consequence of Bush's plan and any comprehensive effort to solve Social Security's long-term solvency.