Sticking to His Plan

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Last Wednesday in the White House residence, George Bush was trying to rally the troops. “I'm a pretty driven guy,” he told a group of 15 GOP lawmakers about his determination to reform Social Security. “When I get my mind focused I mean it.” It was a timely pep talk, coming after hollow-eyed Republicans had returned from town halls and covered dish dinners where angry constituents were opposed to Bush's initiative. The man in charge of shepherding the President's plan through the Senate, Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, hinted last week it might make sense to scrap Bush's key proposal, for personal accounts. GOP allies once tasked with building up support for those accounts were declaring the Gambit dead or floating pared-down compromise options.

The group was happy to hear that Bush was committed, but what they really wanted to hear were some details about which hard choices Bush was going to make. Will there be benefit reductions? Will he support an increase in the retirement age? Will there be tax increases? They got nothing. Those discussions will happen later, said the President. The public needs to be educated about the problem first.

Members of Congress could use a little primer too, say White House aides, who believe that elected officials wouldn't freeze behind the microphone if they did their homework a little more diligently. “The members need to get up to speed,” admitted Rep. Mike Oxley of Ohio. But the “education” better happen soon.

George Bush likes to chuckle at this panicky stage in any drama. Throughout his career, critics have moaned fiery doom scenarios and Bush has regularly proven them wrong. From his maiden gubernatorial run as a political neophyte, to his first Presidential term's four tax cuts, he has beaten the odds by wearing down the opposition or grabbing a last minute compromise and declaring victory. “Despite his history,” says a top White House aide, “people say: ‘yes, but this time it's different.”

But maybe it is different this time. While White House aides rely on the steady-as-she-goes Bush patience, the situation is getting worse. Even the Bush team's sure-footed friends are getting nervous, and the president's own steady and deliberate efforts seem not to be helping his cause. “The president has done a good job, I just believe the opposition has done a better job,” says Indiana Republican Mike Pence. Since the President launched his push for Social Security changes more than a month ago in his State of the Union address, several polls indicate Americans have lost faith he can handle the issue. The Pew Research Center found in a survey that the percentage of Americans who say they favor private accounts has tumbled to 46% down from 54% in December and 58% in September.

The White House blames seniors. Bush has stressed for years that those receiving checks or about to won't be affected, but he hasn't been able to make the sale. Those very recipients are putting pressure on lawmakers and skewing those polling results, say Bush aides. “Any time there is a discussion about Social Security, they think it can't be good for them,” says a Senior Administration official. So Bush is hammering home the point even harder than before. “You're getting your check,” Bush told seniors Friday in Westfield, New Jersey, “nothing will change. No matter what the talk is about reform, nothing will change. I don't care what the ads say, I don't care what the scare tactics say, you're going to get your check.”

To make the case, the Administration is launching a two-month talk-a-thon. Treasury Secretary John Snow and other senior Bush officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, will blanket the country for sixty stops in sixty days. The White House is trying to copy Bush's 2004 campaign playbook, flying over the national media and talking directly to local papers and television stations. The Republican National Committee has called up the grass roots, placing more then 250,000 phone calls supporting the President's plan and e-mailing 100,000 Republican activists. “March and April are about educating America,” says a senior Administration official, “we're not talking specifics yet.”

Right now the President is trying to create what one senior Administration official called a “climate of ideas,” where lawmakers feel pressure to contribute something to the discussion. “Even when bad ideas are out there the President likes that,” says another top Bush official. “He doesn't want us to respond to everything one way or another because he wants more ideas. It means people are in the game and it gets their competitive nature going. When you have enough ingredients that leads to a deal.”

For Republicans on the Hill, Bush's thousand-flowers-blooming posture has led to stomach upset. In the Senate, Majority Leader Bill Frist suggested the legislation might not come up for a vote this year. He seemed to be recognizing how hard it would be to untangle the many unanswered questions, but delay would also mean pushing action into the volatile 2006 election year. After a talking to by the White House, Frist reiterated he wanted the legislation passed this year. Senator Grassley seemed to be feeling the same kinds of pressures when he flirted with dropping the President's plan for private accounts. As the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee he knows that the only way any piece of legislation will pass is with a filibuster proof 60 votes. That means getting Democrats, and right now, Democrats are united in opposition to such accounts.

In the House, leaders are worried if they move too quickly and support a bill with painful benefit reductions, the Senate will come along afterwards and opt for another less painful approach leaving House members politically vulnerable. Move too slowly, and House members will be stuck with a Senate bill that might raise the income cap from which Social Security taxes are drawn, which many conservative Republicans view as an unacceptable tax hike.

The President has preserved his negotiating posture by saying almost all options are on the table, from increasing the amount of income taxed to fund the program to raising the retirement age. But that doesn't help members of his party answer the pointed questions at those town halls—events which one senior Republican House aide said in some cases were "horrific." Because the President will not pick a route, members have to defend all possible choices. "They can't go home and defend 17 different opinions," says a senior Congressional Republican staffer worried about the next Congressional recess in two weeks. Based on the President's strategy, they're going to have to.