Dubya shifts strategy on Social Security

The tepid public response accorded President Bush’s plan to overhaul Social Security has the White House searching for new ways to sell the message to the public.

During the most recent addresses in what the president has billed as his “60 stops in 60 days” tour, Bush has emphasized that his proposal – centered on the creation of private accounts – won’t affect the Social Security benefits of those who are retired or are soon to be retired.

And while he no longer speaks of the financial woes facing the government retirement system as a crisis, the president maintains a problem exists and younger generations could wind up footing the bill.

“It is a way to say to younger workers that you’re going to be able to come closer to the benefits that have been promised to you, because by putting money aside you will be able … to get a better rate of return on your own money than the government could get on your own money,” Bush told supporters last week at a rally in Shreveport, La.. “And as that rate of return compounds, as you save, your account grows bigger and bigger and bigger.”

Polls show that support for the president’s plan to create private accounts by permitting workers to divert a portion of their Social Security taxes has lost ground since he began a heavy promotion earlier this month.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll released this weekend showed that only one-third of those questioned approve the manner in which the president is handling the Social Security question. A majority said the more they hear about it, the less they like it.

Surveys indicate the plan is more popular with younger voters than with the elderly who vote in higher numbers and have expressed concerns about tinkering with the system. In Louisiana, Bush called on senior citizens to consider the needs of their grandchildren.

“I want the seniors here to understand that this issue is really about your grandchildren, and we want your advice on how best to make sure that the system works for your grandchildren,” Bush said.

“There’s a lot of grandparents who, when they hear the math, realize that the numbers are going to be pretty significant when it comes time to either raise the taxes or doing whatever is needed to make the promises, and that now is the time for government to take care of the next generation.”

Democrats believe they have the president on the run. They note that Bush was scheduled to appear at a rally in Sarasota, Fla., on Friday but canceled it in favor of stops in Pensacola and Orlando.

Brad Woodhouse, a spokesman for Americans United to Protect Social Security, which opposes the Bush plan, suggested the unenthusiastic reception afforded the proposal by Rep. Katherine Harris, a Republican, might have had something to do with the change.

“The president’s allies are visibly concerned and they are furiously trying to insulate themselves from the backlash created by the president’s privatization scheme,” Woodhouse said.

“The president is canceling events and Republican members are canceling town hall meetings for the upcoming (spring) recess for one reason and one reason only: they can’t stand the heat that’s been generated in opposition to their radical plan to privatize Social Security.”

(E-mail Bill Straub at StraubB(at)shns.com.)