Bush Back on Social Security Trail

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The more President Bush stumps for restructuring Social Security (search), the less popular his own plan seems to become. His poll ratings are dropping, too, but Bush says he is not deterred.

"I'm going to be stubborn. And we're going to keep working this," Bush told a supportive audience Wednesday at a community college here.

Barnstorming on behalf of a presidential proposal is a time-honored technique to build grass-roots support. Bush used the strategy successfully in his first term for his tax cuts and for a Medicare (search) prescription drug benefit.

This time, it doesn't seem to be working.

Not quite five months after a re-election victory that he claimed earned him political capital to spend, Bush's approval ratings are languishing in the mid-40 percent range and his Social Security plan for individual investment accounts seems to be winning few friends, either in Congress or among the general public.

Polls show that Bush — about halfway through a 60-day cross-country push for his plan — is helping to raise public awareness of what Social Security's financial plight will be once he and other baby boomers start retiring.

But the same polls show support for individual investment accounts (search) is lower now than when he proposed them in his State of the Union address two months ago.

Timed to coincide with Bush's visit, the AARP held a news conference here to release the results of a national survey showing significant opposition among its membership to the proposed individual investment accounts.

"AARP members not only dislike private accounts ... they really dislike them," said Jeff Love, research director for the nation's leading lobby for elderly citizens.

Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said that White House aides have reached out to try to find common ground with the group that claims 35 million members — even as he complained about "scare tactics" by other opponents

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee which has jurisdiction over Social Security issues, has said the odds are below 50-50 that Bush's plan will pass Congress. He cites a lack of a groundswell for fixing the government's massive retirement plan.

But, sharing the platform with Bush on Wednesday, Grassley glossed over his differences. "We agree on a blueprint. ... Doing nothing is not an option," he said to loud applause. He told reporters after Bush had left that even though the plan lacks support now, "the president knows one of the rules of politics is repetition."

Bush, in an interview aired on WMT-AM radio here and on WHO NewsRadio in Des Moines, said, "I think there is a political price for not getting involved in the process." He also said doing nothing might one day force Congress to raise the payroll tax for Social Security from its current 12.4 percent up to around 18 percent.

As for his declining approval ratings, some of the president's supporters suggest that other factors, such as the Terri Schiavo case, are at play.

"The president's poll numbers are usually a direct reflection of the national news. And the news has been dominated by a heart-wrenching matter in Florida that has caused many families to discuss politics at the dinner table in a whole new way," said Washington-based GOP consultant Scott Reed.

Reed said, "I wouldn't throw in the towel on Social Security reform at this stage. The president is taking the message to the streets, has a very aggressive schedule. I think you have to wait and see what happens when Congress returns from its recess." Congress is back next week.

Pollster Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, said the more people learn about Bush's plans for personal Social Security investment accounts, "the less they like the idea."

"The president is saying this is a system that has to be fixed. And people do not see private accounts, personal accounts, whatever you want to call them, as doing that," Kohut said.

Kohut also said that Bush's practice of appearing only before friendly, invitation-only audiences and answering prescreened questions could backfire "if it comes across as hype."

Although Bush has not presented a detailed plan, he has called for allowing workers under age 55 to divert a portion of their Social Security taxes into stock and bond investment accounts — in exchange for a reduction in future guaranteed benefits.

Critics claim the plan would cost trillions in transition costs. They also say it would not ensure the program's long-term solvency, a point Bush now acknowledges.

Said Thomas Mann, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, "It matters what you're trying to sell. It's was a lot easier to sell tax cuts. But when you talk about Social Security, that's real, that's close, that's dear, that's something people care about."