At lectern and in limo, Bush makes his pitch

February 06, 2005|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

OMAHA, Neb. - After President Bush finished pitching his Social Security plan to thousands of voters gathered in a stadium here Friday, he stepped into his limousine to make a second run at selling the proposal.

This time, he had an audience of one.

Bush had invited Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson, a moderate Nebraskan who says he is open to Bush's idea of adding private accounts to Social Security, to ride as his guest in the armored presidential car as it made its way from his campaign-style stop at the Qwest Center to the airport.

As the president's aides whisked Nelson to the motorcade for the kind of presidential face time politicians covet, Bush seized a rare chance - outside the media glare and the partisanship of Washington - to woo a crucial player.

The ego-boosting, image-raising summons for a sit-down with the man himself is just one of the powerful tools available to Bush in his uphill struggle to win support for his effort to transform Social Security. And as Bush prepares for the biggest domestic fight of his presidency, he is throwing all the weapons he has into the effort.

It is a considerable arsenal, and one that only a president could muster. Bush is staging an aggressive publicity effort using the machinery of the Republican National Committee, now under the direction of his re-election manager, Ken Mehlman, a Baltimore-area native who has vowed to use the same tools he used to re-elect the president.

He is taking advantage of a business coalition whose members promise to raise as much as $35 million to stage an advertising and lobbying blitz for Bush's plan.

Then there is the president himself, who knows that the fate of his Social Security plan rests largely on his effectiveness as salesman in chief.

Multiple angles

Based on his opening salvo last week, Bush is going to strike from a number of angles.

During his State of the Union speech Wednesday, he tried to disarm his critics by putting "on the table" a number of proposals for making up the long-term Social Security funding gap.

This past week, he began going over the heads of lawmakers in Congress and straight to voters, hoping to tantalize younger workers with new details of his plan for personal retirement accounts while attempting to neutralize people older than age 55 - a group that votes in disproportionately high numbers - with assurances that the changes would not affect them.

"The Social Security system will not change in any way" for those born before 1950, Bush said yesterday in his weekly radio address. "We will make the system a better deal for younger workers" by creating voluntary personal accounts, he added.

Bush is singling out centrist Democrats, including those who, like Nelson, face re-election campaigns next year, and putting them in the national spotlight.

Nelson "is a man with whom I can work, a person who is willing to put partisanship aside to focus on what's right for America," Bush told his audience here Friday.

Friendly persuasion

Perhaps most important, Bush is using the type of persuasion that only a president can manage, the kind of soft sell that comes in the back of the presidential limo or in a plush seat on Air Force One.

Nelson was treated to such an effort Friday as he rode with Bush in his limousine, bantering about football and bickering chummily over which nickname the president should use for the first-term senator (they settled on "Benator") before they turned to the prickly issue of Social Security.

Bush spent most of the ride explaining why he thought it was important to alert the public to the problems facing Social Security and to propose a remedy, Nelson said.

"I told him that I would be happy to look at his plan when he lays out his plan," Nelson said in an interview, "and that I'd try to play a constructive role."

Nelson, who sided with Bush on a number of his first-term agenda items, including tax cuts and the Medicare prescription drug measure, has said he would consider any Social Security proposal that did not cut benefits or deepen the deficit.

Last week, he was the only Senate Democrat not to sign a letter to Bush that criticized the president's proposal for private accounts. The group noted economists' estimates that switching to such accounts could cost as much as $2 trillion - a figure Bush's aides reject - and wrote that "shifting financial obligations of this magnitude to future generations is immoral, unacceptable, and unsustainable."

Need `calculations'

Administration officials acknowledge that Bush's plan for personal retirement accounts would not close Social Security's $3.7 trillion shortfall or delay its insolvency, which is projected for about 2042. Until the president outlines precisely how he would do that, Nelson said, he will not take a stand on Bush's plan.

"He started out with concepts, broad concepts, and now he's moved to some content," Nelson said. But "now what's needed is the calculus. I need to see the calculations of how this works."

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