PENSACOLA, Fla. – President Bush, struggling in his bid to create private accounts within Social Security (search), brought his mom on the road Friday in hopes 79-year-old Barbara Bush (search) could bolster his case among the politically potent white-haired set.
The result: the Bush-and-Bush Show, delivering a choreographed message amid some gentle ribbing.
Stressing the dominant theme of his recent Social Security events, Bush said nine times in his 54-minute appearance here that benefits would remain the same for people born before 1950. The real issue, he said, is ensuring future generations have a retirement program to depend on by allowing younger workers to put some of their payroll taxes into private retirement accounts.
"If you're getting a check, nothing is going to change," he promised at a junior college gymnasium. "We're here to talk about not you — we're here to talk about your children and your grandchildren."
Mrs. Bush dutifully offered backup with one on-message line.
"I'm here because your father and I have 17 grandchildren ... all born after 1950 and we want to know: Is someone going to do something about it?" she said.
The emphasis on addressing seniors' worries reflects a clear concern in the White House about the president's six-week sales campaign. Polls show growing opposition to — and thus, continued wariness among congressional Republicans about — Bush's plans even as he travels the country pitching them.
To that end, the appearance of Mrs. Bush on two stops on the president's 60-day traveling campaign was a gimmick. After all, the grandchildren in the wealthy Bush family are unlikely to depend on Social Security in their sunset years and the monthly Social Security check collected by Mrs. Bush's husband, the former President Bush, is undoubtedly only a minuscule portion of their retirement income.
The famously grandmotherly Mrs. Bush was on hand when the president landed in Florida, giving a small jump of excitement when her oldest son emerged in the doorway of Air Force One. She patted him encouragingly as he took the stage in Pensacola and smiled agreeably throughout his remarks — even during the jokes cracked at her expense.
"They used to say, well, you know, he's got his daddy's eyes but his mother's mouth — which means I'm about to talk a lot," Bush said.
"Wait a minute, at least make it a tie," he later chided the audience when they wildly applauded his statement that wife Laura Bush is "the country's greatest first lady."
Then it was Barbara Bush's turn to speak, and the quips began to fly.
"You're supposed to ask me why I'm here," said Mrs. Bush curtly, her hair white as ever, her trademark pearls at her neck, with a bright pink jacket topping sensible pants and shoes.
"I now know why I'm getting white hair," the president responded.
"I'm here because when else can I see my two oldest boys?" his mother said.
"How about a little better answer than that, will you?" said Bush, following with a joke that she only agreed to come to tell her boys what to do in person.
"If you would listen, I'd tell you more," she replied.
Later in Orlando, Mrs. Bush did not mention Social Security, speaking only briefly to introduce her son. But she offered a subtle message to those who wonder whether Bush will abandon his uphill battle for his Social Security agenda, introducing him as "the very tenacious president of the United States."
The president did not mention the controversy over Terri Schiavo, the severely brain-damaged Florida woman who has been in a persistent vegetative state since 1990. Doctors removed her feeding tube Friday despite a last-minute push by Republicans on Capitol Hill (search) to stop them.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Bush supported the congressional efforts. "We appreciate those who are standing on the side of protecting and defending life," McClellan said.