In a two-day road trip, the president answered questions about Social Security reform.
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
OMAHA, Neb. -- President Bush may ultimately prevail in his effort to overhaul Social Security, but his two-day road trip to promote the idea underscored just how hard it will be.
The hearty applause that greeted Bush at every stop on his five-state tour Thursday and Friday was mingled with quiet murmurings of unease about his intention to revamp a program that's become an integral part of American life. Even the president's supporters acknowledged that he has a long way to go in his effort to whip up public support for personal investment accounts within Social Security.
"I think most people are afraid of change," said Bruce Beaudry, a high school teacher who took his students to see Bush at a stop Thursday evening in Great Falls, Mont. "He's lobbying for change, and that's what it's going to take."
Day two of the president's five-state tour started Friday morning in Nebraska, where he told several thousand people in Omaha's Qwest Center that Social Security would be "flat bust" by mid-century. In fact, official projections indicate that payroll taxes will cover about 73 percent of promised benefits by that point.
Marguerite McGill, 60, left the event unconvinced that Bush can fix the problem. She was particularly concerned about what would happen to traditional Social Security if payroll taxes were diverted to private accounts.
"I agree it needs to be addressed," McGill said, "but I'm not sure he's got all the answers. I hope he keeps an open mind. I hope Congress keeps an open mind, too."
Avoiding benefit disruption
The president has said the government would borrow money to avoid any disruption in benefits to current recipients. At the same time, his senior aides concede that his proposed investment accounts would do nothing to fix Social Security's long-term solvency, and he rules out hikes in the payroll tax to fix that. Bush has promised to work with Congress on finding solutions, but all remaining options would require sacrifice -- either cuts in future benefits, exposing more income to the payroll tax or both.
"I fully recognize a personal retirement account is not the only thing needed to solve Social Security permanently," the president acknowledged Friday. "But it's a part of the solution."
Bush planned to end the day in Tampa, Fla., after a stop in Little Rock, Ark. He went to North Dakota and Montana on Thursday.
Most of the president's events were carefully scripted, and the audiences were packed with supporters. In Fargo, N.D., local organizers came up with a list of residents who were banned from the event, including people who had criticized the president in letters to the Fargo newspaper.
Four years ago, Bush used similar campaign-style rallies to build support for tax cuts. But selling tax reductions was easy compared with the task at hand.
This time, the president is trying to explain a complex proposal to change the most popular federal program in history.
While he ties his proposed change to Social Security's future funding shortfall, his proposal wouldn't fix it. To prevail, he'll have to persuade Americans to revamp a trusted program that most of them think has served them well for nearly 70 years.