Snow Leads Social Security Charge

Treasury Secretary John Snow (search) has been crisscrossing the country like a harried tourist to tout the Bush administration's Social Security (search) plan.

When he's not on the road, he is talking up the administration's No. 1 domestic priority with members of Congress and in newspaper, television and radio interviews. Just last week, he invited more than 25 talk show hosts to set up shop in the Treasury Department's historic Cash Room for a daylong gabfest on — you guessed it — Social Security.

His audiences change, but his message never does.

"Over lunch counters, over breakfast and dinner tables all over America, the topic is Social Security reform," Snow told community leaders during a stop in Bozeman, Mont., on March 30. "The American people respect leaders who call a spade a spade. The president touched the 'third rail' without fear and now we're moving forward."

It's a refrain that's repeated time after time.

While the administration has employed the president, vice president, four Cabinet secretaries and a host of other political appointees in its "60 stops in 60 days" Social Security campaign, Snow has emerged as the main pitchman after the president himself.

Aides estimate Snow is devoting about half of his time to Social Security. Since the beginning of the year, he has visited 11 states, presented 21 speeches — including several appearances before congressional committees — and given more than 100 interviews to promote Social Security.

Bush, by comparison, has held Social Security events in 19 states so far since his State of the Union address on Feb. 2. He travels to Ohio on Friday to make it 20.

In his Social Security remarks, Snow is quick to thank his audience for having him. Then, he tells the crowd how great it is to be there. Next, he goes into his pitch.

"If we act now, we can make sure that Social Security, and our economy, are on sound financial footing for our children and grandchildren," he said in Portland, Ore., in Wilmington, Del., and in New Orleans.

Diverting from his stump speech during remarks at the University of Arkansas, Snow recalled a conversation he had with his son when he was home from college about a year ago. Snow said he told him he hoped that he and his friends talked about Social Security.

"He said, 'Dad, we don't talk about it because we know it won't be there for us,"' Snow said. "And, of course, we know that this belief is fairly typical among your generation."

Snow was tapped as Social Security salesman because he serves as the chief trustee for both the Social Security and Medicare trusts funds and Treasury will be responsible for selling the new debt needed to finance the personal investment accounts for Social Security that Bush wants to set up.

Despite the administration's efforts, polls continue to show heavy opposition to the Bush plan. An AP-Ipsos poll last week said 58 percent oppose it and 36 percent are in favor.

Democrats taunt that the administration should visit another 60 cities because that might drive support down to zero.

"The more Americans hear about Bush's scheme, the less likely they are to support it," says Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

Snow's role has raised eyebrows even among some Republican supporters. They question whether the Treasury secretary should be devoting that much time to Social Security rather than a broader array of issues.

"I think it hurts the standing of the Treasury Department in the world when his foreign counterparts see him doing things of a trivial nature when there are big things he should be concentrating his time on," said Bruce Bartlett, a Republican who served as deputy assistant Treasury secretary for economic policy during the administration of Bush's father.

"The dollar is weak on international markets. We have huge budget and trade deficits. I really think there are more important things the Treasury secretary should be doing than speaking to a high school class in North Dakota," said Bartlett, a senior fellow at the conservative National Center for Policy Analysis.

Critics are also questioning how much money is being spent on what could easily be the biggest White House sales campaign since Bill Clinton tried and failed to get a national health insurance plan.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., has asked the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, to determine how much the administration's effort is costing. "Using taxpayer resources to mount a sophisticated propaganda and lobbying campaign is an abuse of the president's high office," he said.

If Snow is bothered by all the complaints and the sagging polls, he doesn't show it.

During last week's Radio Day, he predicted that a bill would be on Bush's desk by the fall.

Aides also dismiss criticism that Snow is spending too much time on Social Security at the expense of other duties.

"This is the president's top priority and it is logical that Secretary Snow would spend the majority of his time on the No. 1 priority," said Rob Nichols, Snow's chief spokesman.

Nichols said money for Snow's travel is coming out of the department's $3 million annual travel budget and Congress is given an accounting of those expenses on a quarterly basis. He would not provide an estimate for how much money has been spent so far.

Snow could be forced to take the fall should Social Security reform fail, some believe. Others think he will emerge a winner because Bush will claim victory by supporting whatever Social Security plan makes it through Congress.

"If it solves the Social Security problem even though it is not his plan, he can claim quite honestly that he got it done," said David Wyss, chief economist at Standard & Poor's in New York. "Politics is the art of the possible."

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