A Tough Sell for Bush

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South Carolina is about as red as a red state can get. With a state house, governor and two U.S. Senators that are Republican, the Palmetto State went for George W. Bush by 18 percent over John Kerry last year. But even here, the President is having difficulties. When Bush jetted on Air Force One to address the state's legislature last week, he was greeted by a front-page editorial in South Carolina's leading newspaper, The State, warning that he'd have a tough time selling his plan to partially privatize Social Security even in the heart of Bush country.

This is the spring of Bush's discontent. Inside the White House, there's a recognition that this is a difficult period for the president—not 9/11 difficult, not blowing-the-first-presidential-debate difficult, but frustrating nonetheless. He must sell a Social Security package that seems to be losing ground with the public and Congress. His 60-day tour to sell the plan seems to have only diminished support for the proposal. Overall, the president's approval rating has been softening, hovering below the 50% mark in a number of public and private polls.

And it's more than Social Security that's diminishing those numbers. There's the economy, which has shown signs of weakness—market jitters, alarming trade deficits and high oil prices. With the Iraq issue settling into an uncomfortable background of casualties-and-baby-steps-toward-democracy, there's no galvanizing terror issue to give Bush his usual lift in the polls.

This isn't likely to change anytime soon. Congress has been occupied with bills that are high priorities on the minds of the G.O.P. business constituency—a bankruptcy bill that makes it tougher, in many cases, to be absolved of debts, an energy bill that opens the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling—but that are not likely to touch the hearts of most Americans. One White House insider says, "People are feeling 'My gas prices are high and you're up there talking about Terry Schiavo and filibusters and blocking nominees and what does that have to do with me?'" When Congress spends its time on House Republican Leader Tom DeLay's ethical problems and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's quest to change filibuster rules to pass the president's conservative judicial nominees, Washington—and thus the president—seems out of touch. "The key communications problem is to take a variety of these disparate proposals like bankruptcy and energy and show how they're going to help the economy and jobs which is now the number one priority for people," says G.O.P. Pollster David Winston.

Last week, as Bush stumped for his energy bill, he tried to connect with voters when he took a rare swipe at the oil and gas industry by denouncing one version of the bill's subsidies for oil-and-gas exploration. But Bush had to acknowledge the elephant in the room—high gas prices— and admit that even if his energy bill is passed it won't have an immediate effect on oil prices.

And so the White House finds itself in a familiar place: Stick to the script, stay on message, wax confident that things will look up. It worked during the 2004 campaign. "The one thing that's real consistent about this president is that he doesn't spook," says Mark McKinnon who made Bush's presidential campaign ads. "We always knew this would be a tough fight." Indeed, many in the White House see a potential victory in defeat. Even if the Social Security plan doesn't pass, they predict Bush will have been seen as having taken on the tough issues and Americans will rally around him in a you-may-not-agree-with-him-but-isn't-he-strong kind of way.

There's also the hope in the White House that next month the president can move into the specific stage of Social Security. "Right now, the problem is that you don't have a product to defend," says a former White House official.

When he got off of Air Force One back in Washington after traveling to his home state of South Carolina last week, Sen. Lindsay Graham told TIME that he had talked to the president about the importance of moving the national conversation about Social Security to specifics. "We need to start talking about a bill," Bush said as he walked to his waiting car. For the White House, that time can't come soon enough.