Bush looking for new ways to pitch Social Security plan

WASHINGTON – (KRT) – President Bush is hoping that younger workers will breathe new life into his stalled plan for redesigning Social Security.

Lawmakers returning to Congress from their spring break say Bush’s efforts to build support for personal retirement accounts have fallen flat. At the halfway point in the administration’s “60 cities in 60 days” tour to promote change, Bush appears to be, at best, only marginally closer to his goal than when he launched the public-relations effort at the beginning of March.

Congressional leaders now talk openly about postponing action on Social Security until next year or dropping private investment accounts. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which would oversee the legislation, told reporters in his home state this week that Bush has less than a 50-50 chance of success.

“I think it’s a very heavy lift,” Grassley said.

Bush has made transforming Social Security his top domestic priority. He proposes to give workers the option of diverting up to 4 percentage points of their 12.4 percent payroll tax to fund private investment accounts. Any gains from successful investments in stocks and bonds in those accounts would offset cuts for those workers’ Social Security benefits. Many details remain hazy.

White House strategists are preparing a new appeal targeting younger workers, who tend to be more open to changes in the retirement program. Ideas under consideration include sending the president to more events on college campuses or other venues with young people.

Youth-friendly events would give Bush a made-for-TV opportunity to make his case that younger workers would be better off relying on financial markets to build nest eggs for retirement than putting their faith in the current Social Security system.

The shift in emphasis, which is likely to become apparent within the next two weeks, is a follow-up to the current strategy of trying to reassure older Americans that they have nothing to fear from the president’s proposal. Bush has stressed for the past several weeks that Social Security retirement benefits wouldn’t change for Americans 55 and older.

Although tweaking the president’s message doesn’t seem to have made much difference, Bush and his advisers say their campaign to reshape Social Security is on track. Both sides agree that the president has succeeded at least in making Social Security a hot topic. Polls also show that most Americans agree with Bush that the system needs change, even if they don’t like his approach.

Bush acknowledges that personal accounts alone wouldn’t fix Social Security’s long-term solvency problems. He’s promised to work with Congress on other changes, including possible benefit cuts, to deal with the impending retirement of the aging baby boom generation.

“The American people have moved further along in understanding that there’s a problem. Does that mean that people (in Congress) are going to come back and say, `All my constituents are sold?’ No,” said White House spokeswoman Cathie Martin. “It’s incremental.”

Republican lawmakers who’ve withheld support from the president’s plan say they don’t feel any significant pressure from voters to back the White House.

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said Bush’s plans for Social Security are “going to be a tough sell” in her state largely because of concerns about benefit cuts. Bush carried West Virginia in both of his presidential campaigns and supported Capito in her race for Congress.

“There’s concern, mostly by older people, that there’s too great a risk involved,” the congresswoman said in a telephone interview. Capito said she’s not about to endorse a proposal that may never come to a vote in Congress.

“I’m glad I’m undecided,” she said. “I don’t want to react to something that’s never going to come down the pike.”

For interest groups with stakes in the fight, Congress’ two-week spring break was a chance to pressure members in their home districts.

FreedomWorks, a group allied with Bush, sent its members “Easter recess action kits” that included talking points and sample questions for town-hall meetings.

AARP, the nation’s largest organization for seniors, has spent more than $5 million during the congressional break on ads attacking Bush’s private-accounts proposal.

Bush’s opponents think it’s only a matter of time before the president looks for a face-saving compromise.

“Clearly the public is not buying, and I don’t think Congress will buy, the private accounts,” said John Rother, AARP’s director of policy and strategy. Bush “has a long history of taking what he can get and declaring victory.”

But Rother said any attempt at a bipartisan plan to shore up Social Security would have to wait until Bush completes his 60-day tour at the end of April. By the end of this weekend, the president and other top administration officials will have visited 32 states for 108 Social Security-related events.

Bush will be on the road again Tuesday for a visit to Parkersburg, W.Va. He says he intends to “keep pounding on the issue” until he prevails.

© 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.