MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Facing skepticism over private Social Security (search) accounts from the right and left, President Bush (search) on Friday argued that allowing them for younger workers would help ensure that future generations have a secure retirement system.
"Let's fix this permanently. Let's don't slap a Band-Aid on the problem," Bush said. "My call to people from both political parties is: now is the time to put aside our political differences and focus on solving this problem for generations of Americans to come."
Bush was here as part of a two-day, four-state swing through the South to pitch the top item on his domestic agenda: overhauling Social Security, in part by letting younger workers divert some of their Social Security taxes into private investment accounts (search). By the end of the day, the president's Social Security travels will have taken him to 14 states since his Feb. 2 State of the Union address, with visits to Florida, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona to come later this month.
The president's drive for private accounts is running up against opposition, not only from congressional Democrats who are nearly unanimously against the idea but also from many Republicans who worry about the political fallout if they tangle with the popular government retirement program.
So, in hopes of making it easier for more Republicans to go along with him, Bush has begun emphasizing the need to tackle the less controversial issue of the program's long-term solvency. He also has focused much of his traveling on areas represented by GOP lawmakers who are either still on the fence or are taking heat for backing his proposal.
Bush's Memphis stop was aimed partly at Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., who represents a district that touches the fringes of the city and its suburbs. The Democratic National Committee ran ads to coincide with Bush's visit that slammed the president's private accounts proposal and told listeners to encourage Blackburn to oppose it.
Blackburn, who did not return to Tennessee from Washington to appear with Bush, has been supportive of creating private accounts, but only after the Social Security system's long-term solvency has been addressed, said spokesman Ryan Loskarn.
Later Friday, Bush was traveling to the district of Rep. Jim McCrery, R-La., who heads the House Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee. McCrery, who was to introduce the president at the event in Shreveport, could use a boost from Bush: He supports the president on private accounts and has been the subject of attack ads as a result.
Rep. Harold Ford, D-Tenn., who represents much of Memphis, reflected the view of most Democrats, who oppose private accounts on the grounds they would add trillions of dollars to the deficit and leave people stranded if their private accounts lose money.
"If things go bad, people turn to the government for help," said Ford, who despite his opposition attended Bush's speech and won a warm welcome from the president.
All of Bush's events the last two days have been infiltrated by protesters — sometimes more than one — and Friday's appearance in Memphis was no different. Bush was interrupted four times by people in the crowd trying to shout out an alternative message. One woman was escorted out; the rest were drowned out by the president's remarks and the largely supportive audience.