LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Two grandpas and their granddaughters joined President Bush on Thursday in making his case that Social Security (search) was on wobbly footing and private investment accounts would help provide a safety net for future retirees.
The president, on a two-state swing through the South to pitch his plan for the accounts, is trying to ease anxiety among retirees and give political cover to Republican lawmakers facing voters in midterm elections.
Bush repeatedly has reassured the 55-and-over set that the Social Security checks they receive, or soon will get, won't be touched. Still, seniors — a group that votes in greater numbers than the nation's youth — are wary about what will happen to the 70-year-old government retirement system if lawmakers tinker with it.
To address that, Bush said: "More and more grandfathers are asking the president 'How about my granddaughter? I understand I'm safe, what are you going to do about her?'"
On cue, Larry Dean, a self-employed online bookseller, who was joined by his granddaughter, Rebecca 'Bee' Dean, a student at the University of Louisville (search), said, "Call me a Pollyanna, but I have no fear that I will never be able to draw it.
"But I do have fears for my granddaughter, and all of my grandchildren, and even my children your age," he joked to the 58-year-old president.
Public support for Bush's private accounts has been lukewarm.
Outside a downtown auditorium where Bush spoke, protesters waved signs and shouted slogans denouncing his plan. "No more lies, don't privatize," shouted some of the demonstrators. Some held signs that read "Hands off my Social Security."
Inside, opponents interrupted the president four times. Each time, they were drowned out by Bush or supporters in the crowd. "There are different points of view on the issue," Bush conceded.
Facing an uphill battle in getting Social Security changes passed, Republicans in Congress recently have begun to emphasize the solvency problems of Social Security over the controversial private retirement accounts.
On his road trip, Bush did, too. But while he is focusing on solvency, the president is not letting up on his push for private accounts.
"I'm saying to members of the United States Congress, 'Let's fix this system permanently — no Band-Aids,'" Bush said later at a similar event at Auburn University (search) in Montgomery, Ala. "Woe be to the politician who doesn't come to the table and try to come up with a solution."
Shortly before the rally began, the Alabama Senate voted along party lines to pass a resolution opposing Bush's plan to allow Americans under 55 to divert part of their Social Security taxes into personal investment accounts. The Alabama House passed a similar resolution Feb. 22.
"This could be the issue that turns around the South for the Democratic Party," said Joe Reed, the party's vice chairman in Alabama. "Economic issues always tied the South to the Democratic Party."
In Washington, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said Bush had floated two proposals, one, "private accounts that would seriously undermine the solvency of Social Security. And the other, which is the indexing to prices rather than wages, would lead to benefit slashes of about 40 percent. Again, these are nonstarters with the American people," she said.
Also on Thursday, Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid were sending videotaped messages to more than 1,300 house parties in all 50 states to rally, in part, for grass-roots support against private accounts.
Meantime, the AARP, a nationwide group representing seniors, and other groups opposed to private accounts are buying radio and newspaper ads to bolster public opposition to Bush's plan.
"We think we need to repair it and strengthen it, not destroy it," said Laurel True of Shelbyville, who spoke at a forum in Louisville organized by AARP Kentucky. "And we think that these private accounts is the first step in destroying it."
On Friday, Bush was taking his message to Memphis, Tenn., and Shreveport, La. By the time he is done with the two-day sales pitch, he will have hosted Social Security events in 14 states since his Feb. 2 State of the Union address.