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President Bush Jump-starts His ’60 stops in 60 days’ Social Security Reform Camp

March 4, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: If George W. Bush’s barnstorming for his Social Security initiative has the look of a political campaign —

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: It’s nice to be in a part of the world where the cowboy hats outnumber the ties.

TERENCE SMITH: — It’s no accident.

SPOKESMAN, at a Social Security event: Folks, please stay in a single file line. Don’t bunch up on us. Have your identification ready and your tickets please.

TERENCE SMITH: The president’s road show is using the same techniques that were successful in his reelection bid…

WOMAN, attending event: I like the “love you, W.”

WOMAN, attending event: And the one of the “don’t mess with W.”

TERENCE SMITH: — carefully choreographed events in front of handpicked, sympathetic, largely Republican audiences, there by invitation only.

STUDENT, invited to attend event: We got an e-mail the other night from the head of North Carolina College Republicans.

MAN, attending event: Just wanted to come and support President Bush. We were lucky enough to get tickets.

TERENCE SMITH: The object is to play, not to the national press, but to the local media, stick to a central theme, hammer away.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I like the idea of having an account where people say, “I own this.”

DAVID GERGEN: This is the most sophisticated White House on communications that I think we have ever seen.

TERENCE SMITH: David Gergen is director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He previously served as a White House adviser to four different presidents.

DAVID GERGEN: They have taken many elements of what Reagan did and brought them to an additional level of sophistication, certainly a discipline.

TERENCE SMITH: The White House declined to discuss its communications strategy, but the Social Security events have the same carefully coordinated look, from the patriotic music to the banners, to the familiar phrases, used this morning in New Jersey.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I believe in order to make the system work better for younger workers, they ought to be able… be allowed to, at their choice, to take some of their own money and set aside in a personal savings account.

DAVID GERGEN: There are code words that they have introduced into this campaign on Social Security, making sure it’s not called private account, but called a personal retirement account.

And they’re using all of the political magic that they used in the campaign.

TERENCE SMITH: Republican leaders insist upon the term “personal accounts” as opposed to “private accounts,” because the word “private” doesn’t test well in focus groups. They believe it suggests the privatization of Social Security.

Meanwhile, the ubiquitous signature slogan “Strengthening Social Security” has its own implicit message. It’s on the signs, on the White House Web site, in the White House press secretary’s briefings —

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, White House press secretary: We’ve expressed our views and our principles for moving forward to strengthen Social Security.

TERENCE SMITH: …And in advertisements by lobby groups that are supportive of the president.

COMMERCIAL, supporting the president’s Social Security initiative: Call Congress now.

ALEXIS SIMENDINGER, National Journal: All of it is very much tested through the funnels that the Republican Party uses, and they are very coordinated.

TERENCE SMITH: Alexis Simendinger covers the Bush White House for National Journal.

ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: The members of his party get talking points every day. They have meetings and strategy sessions. They all meet together in Congress with White House representatives as well as those advocates who are out there with private groups, that are privately funded, but have sprung up to be supportive of personal accounts, private accounts.

TERENCE SMITH: The Treasury Department just announced the formation of a Social Security “war room” to help coordinate the Social Security effort.

TERENCE SMITH: But thus far, the most powerful weapon remains the presidential road trip.

DAVID GERGEN: I think that these — these sort of staged events do give him one advantage


GIRL: Will this help me when I grow up?

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: That’s a loaded question. Yes.

DAVID GERGEN: The clips on the news show him in warm positive settings.

SPOKESPERSON, at an event: The President of the United States.

DAVID GERGEN: You can create a sense, “well there is a lot more support for this than you may think.”

ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: The events that the president does around the country are not for the White House press corps that travels with him.

They may be absolutely put to sleep by the repetition.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH, at event: Some of you are beginning to glaze over. I understand.

ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: The scene that they’re setting is for the local reporters, especially television, because they treat the arrival of the president in these states as a very important thing, and he gets coverage leading up to the arrival —

REPORTER: Air Force One touched down at the North Dakota air National Guard base…

ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: — He gets coverage of the event itself.

REPORTER: The president comes to Arkansas selling his plan to overhaul Social Security.

JIM DEFONTES, Curtis Media Group: I think it means a tremendous amount. How often can you claim that the president was in your town?

TERENCE SMITH: Jim Defontes is news director of the Curtis Media Group, a chain of radio stations in North Carolina. He says the president has come often to his state, which supported Bush in both elections.

JIM DEFONTES: Our standard joke is, you know, “Hey, he’s looking for retirement property.”

TERENCE SMITH: He says such appearances rally the faithful.

JIM DEFONTES: You could almost view this as a payback stop for the support the president’s received from North Carolina back in the election and during the campaign season.

TERENCE SMITH: The events are long on style, short on specifics.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Thank you all for coming.

TERENCE SMITH: Ed Chen of the Los Angeles Times has covered George W. Bush since the 2000 campaign. He says a plan with few details is politically useful to the president.

EDWIN CHEN: One of the things he is criticized for is not coming forth with more details about how he would change Social Security. And the reason he has not done that is he believes it would be strategically unwise to do so, to tell — to play all his cards, if you will, this early in the game.

TERENCE SMITH: Chen believes the Bush White House will not make the same mistakes the Clinton administration did when they crafted a detailed plan for health care reform that was quickly dissected by critics.

EDWIN CHEN: It was dead on arrival — it was dead before arrival on Capitol Hill. And it was so easy to pick apart by so many different people who would be affected and so many interest groups.

TERENCE SMITH: But in North Carolina, at least, the local media and the public appear to be hungry for more elaboration.

ANCHOR: Do you believe the substance was really there?

RADIO HOST: All of these opinions are coming from a plan that doesn’t exist.

TERENCE SMITH: And a new Pew Research Center poll shows only 29 percent of the public approve of the president’s handling of Social Security. This time the magic may not be working.

ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: If the Social Security project was an airplane, it would be kind of stuck at the gate. That’s where we are right now, and that’s where the White House knows it is, too.

TERENCE SMITH: Where tax cuts were an easy sell during the president’s first term, Social Security reform is more difficult.

ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: This particular issue is working two demographics against one another. The president is trying to reassure seniors that nothing will change and lure younger workers that he’s got this great idea; private accounts, that will change their security forever, and why not sign on with him?

That is a very difficult thing to do: To be persuasive with one demographic, gain their support, without losing the support of older Americans.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: No matter what the rhetoric might be, no matter what the mailers may say, nothing changes for people who’ve retired or near retirement.

ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: Why are older Americans really important? Because they vote and one of the reasons the president is having a tough time is because he faces with his House Republicans the idea, the prospect, of a midterm election next year.

TERENCE SMITH: And there is organized opposition that is mounting a vigorous and noisy defense…

PROTESTERS: A town meeting with no dissent! What a cowardly president!

TERENCE SMITH: …Which is not being ignored by the local media.

REPORTER: Protesters lined Capitol Avenue in front of the federal building.

PROTESTER: Hands off…

REPORTER: And while protesters worked the streets, the president worked the audience.

TERENCE SMITH: The White House may already be regrouping.

DAVID GERGEN: They realize that this is such an uphill fight, they’ll conduct a vigorous campaign to be sure, but they’re going to find a way to get out of this.

TERENCE SMITH: Alexis Simendinger says this president knows when to compromise.

ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: The president initially talked about passing this this year, 2005, now suddenly its become an 18-month project or maybe by next year, or “gee, we’d like to do this in this term.”

This president has a history of compromising and then calling it victory, so there are many opportunities for this president to take something that has a nugget of an idea, private investment accounts, and apply it, maybe layer it on with some other ideas in Congress.

TERENCE SMITH: Perhaps, but the White House has announced that the president, vice president and Cabinet officials will make 60 appearances over the next 60 days beating the Social Security drum.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I’m going to continue to travel over and over and over again.

TERENCE SMITH: And needless to say…

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: OK, let’s get to work.

TERENCE SMITH: …the White House communications apparatus will continue full throttle.