President Bush is trying to shore up the electoral prospects of two Republican lawmakers who are getting heat over his plan to overhaul Social Security.
Bush was to appear Friday at meetings with mostly hand-picked audiences in the districts of GOP Reps. Mike Ferguson of New Jersey and Chris Chocola of Indiana.
With both seats competitive, they are prime targets for Democrats interested in running in the midterm elections next year against Bush’s plan for the partial privatization of Social Security.
Ferguson has not yet taken a position on Bush’s proposal; Chocola said town meetings in his district last week left him willing to follow Bush’s lead, even as he talked of the difficulty of the politics surrounding the issue.
Chocola was one of the main targets of ads shown last month by MoveOn.Org, in which Bush’s Social Security plans were attacked as a steep benefit cut for retirees. The ads aired as well in the New York City media market, which includes Ferguson’s northern New Jersey district.
Many residents of Ferguson’s district also received an anonymous, recorded telephone message in late January saying their congressional representative supported privatizing Social Security, USA Today reported.
Opponents were ratcheting up their pressure to coincide with Bush’s trip, with the political arm of House Democrats taunting the two lawmakers to make their positions clear.
The Democratic Party planned radio advertisements in both districts that accuse Bush of putting forward a “risky scheme” that would “end Social Security’s guaranteed benefits.” And advocates opposed to Bush’s ideas planned a rally in New Jersey.
Congressional Democrats are almost entirely united in opposition to Bush’s Social Security plan, contending it would hurt traditional benefits and drive up the deficit.
Bush’s trip to an armory in Westfield, N.J., and an athletic center at the University of Notre Dame is part of a two-month blitz in which he and other top administration officials are visiting 29 states to urge action on his proposal this year. Bush already has attended Social Security events in eight states since his Feb. 2 State of the Union address.
On Thursday, Bush acknowledged that he has “a lot more work to do” but claimed to have made headway in his efforts to bring Americans around to his view.
“I do believe we’re making progress on the first stage of getting anything complicated and difficult done in Washington, and that is to explain the problem,” he said after visiting CIA headquarters.
The White House said the president will continue to articulate Social Security’s fiscal problems, the value of personal accounts and the unchanged safety net for retirees and near-retirees.
A new poll indicates that while the number of people who know about the plan has doubled, the number supporting private accounts is tumbling.
Earlier in the week, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee suggested focusing on the long-term solvency of Social Security rather than on creating personal accounts.
Bush did get a boost from Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who prodded Congress to act now to rein in the benefits promised to future retirees, and repeated his assertion that a gradual phase-in of private accounts is a good idea.
And Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said Thursday that Congress should act this year to confront Social Security’s problems, backtracking from earlier comments that action might have to wait.
Although Bush has not put forward a comprehensive plan, he foresees no change for current retirees or workers age 55 and older. Younger Americans, however, could divert up to 4 percent of their income subject to Social Security taxes into personal accounts in exchange for a reduction in their guaranteed benefit.
Other tax increases or benefit cuts would be needed to bring the system into solvency.