WASHINGTON – A new Social Security war room inside the Treasury Department (search) is pumping out information to sell President Bush plan, much like any political campaign might do. It's part of a coordinated effort by the Bush administration.
The internal, taxpayer-funded campaigning is backed up by television advertisements, grass-roots organizing and lobbying from business and other groups that support the Bush plan.
The president's opponents are organized too, though they do not enjoy the resources of the White House or Treasury to sell their message.
For the administration, the communications effort is being coordinated out of Treasury's public affairs office through the new Social Security Information Center (search). Three people have been hired, with two more hires possible soon. The first three employees are veterans of the Bush-Cheney campaign or the Republican National Committee (search).
"The uber purpose is to centralize and coordinate the administration's public affairs and communication activities," said chief Treasury spokesman Rob Nichols. "Standing up this office demonstrates how important fixing Social Security is."
Bush has proposed allowing younger workers to divert some of their Social Security payroll taxes into private accounts that could be invested in stocks and bonds. In exchange, people who take the deal would see their traditional government benefit cut, with total benefits determined by the success of each personal account.
Younger workers are likely to see other cuts as well to help fix the program's long-term financial problems, though Bush has not detailed how he would handle this.
To sell the plan, the administration has launched a two-month travel blitz by administration officials including Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Treasury Secretary John Snow, as well as other Cabinet officers and White House aides. The new center is coordinating their schedules.
It is developing talking points to ensure that all officials are "singing off the same song sheet," Nichols said. And it will soon launch a Web site featuring the president's comments on the issue, copies of speeches and news stories and columns that are supportive of the Bush plan.
Additionally, it will deliver "rapid response" to media coverage it doesn't like. "If there is an editorial in a paper that does not reflect the view of the president, they will engage in the traditional rapid response effort to ensure an op-ed or letter to the editor that states our view," Nichols said.
Staff also monitor public statements by lawmakers and others about Social Security and circulate those that are helpful to the cause.
The center is sending e-mails highlighting positive press coverage and administration statements to thousands of people including reporters, congressional staffers and members of the public.
Similar communications groups were used by President Clinton to promote his policies. Still, some question the use of government money for a political agenda.
"They have the right to say their piece and to respond, but to create a whole team of PR experts to try and influence the media, I think, is an excessive use of taxpayer money," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, who opposes the Bush plan.
Nichols responded that raising public awareness about issues is part of Treasury's mission.
"Financial education and literacy is part of the department's mission," he said.