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To anyone who wonders why President Bush would champion a politically explosive idea such as restructuring the Social Security system and then relentlessly push the agenda even as polls show eroding public support for the plan, the answer came Thursday with the president's trip to Milwaukee.
President Bush laughs with one of six panel members, Andrea Marton, 23, of Germantown, Thursday during his visit to the Milwaukee Art Museum to talk about his Social Security plan.
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President Bush sits with a panel of young workers during his speech on Social Security reform Thursday at the Milwaukee Art Museum.
Concern on Both Sides of the Issue
Some reaction from the president's target audience for reform:
Obviously, there's a concern of mine that I'm paying into a system and I will not get anything back.
- Andrew Ziebell, 36,
Who helps manage his parents' home construction business in Delafield
What do you have to save when you're making 6 or
7 dollars an hour?
- Ellen Pipito, 40,
UWM education student
We have to be proactive. It’s not just an issue for the elderly anymore.
- Sherry Bantug, 29,
Milwaukee-based pharmaceutical sales representative and a Republican
Somehow you hate to say it, but you have got to look out for number one, you have got to look out for your family.
- Philip Bielefeld,36,
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"Obviously, there's a concern of mine that I'm paying into a system and I will not get anything back," said Andrew Ziebell, 36, after he listened to Bush argue that Social Security is headed toward an eventual funding crisis and that younger people will benefit from a proposed system of personal investment accounts.
The appreciative audience gathered in the Milwaukee Art Museum - invited on the basis of ties to the business community - proved that Bush's pocketbook politics resonate strongly with pro-business voters such as Ziebell, who helps manage his family's home-construction business in Delafield.
If Thursday's audience represents a cross section of the nation's business community, their bursts of warm applause showed that fears over the solvency of the public retirement system have the potential to consolidate political support for Bush among a constituency of younger Americans who look uneasily toward their golden years.
"There are lots of people who do like the idea of reforming the system, of changing Social Security, people who feel they're flushing money down the toilet by giving it to the government," said Stuart Rothenberg, a political science professor and editor of The Rothenberg Political Report, a non-partisan political newsletter in Washington.
Bush appeared to be speaking to the converted on Thursday. The 450 guests allowed into the museum's atrium received invitations through their membership in the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, the city's main business lobby, or its sister organization, the Young Professionals of Milwaukee.
In interviews after the president spoke, a number of Milwaukee's young professionals concurred that they don't expect a government-sponsored social safety net to support them when they retire and expressed admiration for initiatives that allow them more leeway in how they save for their own retirement.
When it comes to government-paid retirement funds, "I factor zero for my personal planning," said Rick Fessenbecker, managing director at Northwoods Software Development Inc., a fast-growing technology firm in Brown Deer.
"You have a whole generation saying the same thing," the software executive said.
At the same time, those who agreed to be interviewed showed less interest in other aspects of the broader Social Security debate.
Beyond fears over the solvency of the system - fears that are not universally shared by critics of the Bush plan - policy-makers in Washington themselves argue over complex fiscal projections and the likelihood of the looming funding crisis. In a debate fraught with fiscal complexities and dueling budget numbers, congressional leaders have not found consensus on solutions.
Two key changes
Bush has proposed two fundamental changes in Social Security: reducing benefits for retirees, except some with low incomes, and creating a new class of personal investment accounts that could include stocks, bonds or mutual funds.
Few analysts dispute that Bush's plan would add significantly to the national debt. If Americans invest a share of their payroll taxes in personal accounts, they will put less into the national Social Security pool that pays current retirees. The government will have to compensate for the shortfall by borrowing. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning Washington think tank, estimates that the Bush plan would add $4.9 trillion in additional debt over the first 20 years of its implementation.
Seeking a tipping point
Those considerations help explain why Bush faces an uphill battle. Polls show falling approval rates for Bush's handling of Social Security issues. One of the most widely followed surveys that isn't commissioned by news organizations comes from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. The latest Pew poll, released on Thursday and based on interviews among 1,502 Americans, "finds that Bush's association with a plan to limit the growth of Social Security benefits appears to undermine support for the concept," the group said.
Specifically, Pew found that 47% favor the proposal for private retirement accounts while 40% oppose the idea; the ratio is virtually unchanged from February. Pew said it went out of its way to ask the question in the most balanced way possible.
"Fortunately or unfortunately, only a minority of people support the president's proposal," Rothenberg said. "He has not managed to broaden its appeal. The White House believes that if they continue to push this, there will be a tipping point."
For Philip Bielefeld, an engineer at a Milwaukee architectural firm, national fiscal balances took a back seat to immediate personal considerations.
"I know I can do better than the 1.8 percent" average yield that Bush said was the government's typical yield on Social Security Trust Fund investments, Bielefeld said. "It's interesting to see Bush take the bull by the horns and at least bring the issue to the forefront."
"Somehow you hate to say it, but you have got to look out for number one, you have got to look out for your family," continued Bielefeld, 36, who called himself a Republican voter. "Social Security hits close to home."
"We have to be proactive" in the investment decisions for retirement, said Sherry Bantug, 29, a Milwaukee-based pharmaceutical sales representative and a Republican.
She added, "It's not just an issue for the elderly anymore."
Outside the museum, Bush protesters and supporters alike gathered.
"We'll have an account where we'll be able to grow our own money and not be subject to the whims of Congress and the promises of politicians," said 29-year-old Cameron Sholty, Wisconsin state director for the conservative group FreedomWorks.
Ellen Pipito, 40, came looking for the protesters but left before they assembled. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee education student and single mother of two questioned how private accounts would work in the economy of low-wage jobs she predicts in the American future.
"What do you have to save when you're making 6 or 7 dollars an hour?" she asked.
Annysa Johnson of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.