President Bush, Traveling Salesman

It's going to look like a made-for-TV movie we've seen before.

Here's the basic plot line: President Bush delivers a major speech in Washington, then hops aboard Air Force One to take the message directly to the American people, bypassing what he and his aides refer to as "the media filter."

With his Wednesday night State of the Union address still echoing through the Capitol, by Thursday morning Mr. Bush will be on his way to Fargo, N.D., where he'll begin the presidential equivalent of door-to-door salesmanship for the most controversial item on his second term wish list: revamping Social Security.

The president wants major changes to the system. And the scope of his vision already has not just Democrats, but also some prominent Republicans lining up to short-circuit the president's plans. Tops among the troublesome items is the White House's stated goal of allowing people to divert a portion of their Social Security tax to invest on their own.

The president describes Social Security as in crisis and says his strong medicine will save it. The opposition says there is no crisis, and the introduction of private accounts will undermine the guarantee that has made the system what it is.

The president says that system will be "flat bust" by 2042, but the opposition says Social Security will still be able to meet 75 percent of its obligations that year, even if nothing is done between now and then.

The opposition says the transition cost of the president's proposal would be up to $2 trillion.

The president says to do nothing would cost five times that much or more over time.

And so it goes.

The early line is that Social Security remains a steep climb for the White House, the biggest possible test of the political capital he says he won with re-election. The president says the country is ready.

So who's right? In the long run, the people will decide. That's where this week's presidential travel comes in. And it's also why the next few months may look like a re-run of Mr. Bush's first months in office.

In February 2001, the president started pushing for giant, across-the-board tax cuts worth $1.6 trillion over the coming decade. Critics said he was overreaching, pushing the envelope. He'd never get what he wanted, even with GOP control of both the House and the Senate.

Next thing you knew, Air Force One was making its majestic descent into places like Sioux Falls, S.D., Fargo, N.D., Billings, Mont., Lafayette, La., Little Rock, Ark., Panama City, Fla. And every last stop was covered in saturation fashion by the local media, especially local TV.

In each state Mr. Bush made his personal appeal until it took on the rhythm and magic of a mantra: "It's not the government's money, it's the people's money."

The speech was the same everywhere. But all these destinations had something else in common. Each was home to a United States senator, in almost every case a Democrat, who either opposed the tax cuts outright or hesitated to sign on for them. Nearly all were also on the ballot in the next election: Tim Johnson in South Dakota, Max Baucus in Montana, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana and Tim Hutchinson in Arkansas.

One by one, the president picked them off, and with very little give on his part. Their votes put his program over the top in the Senate and a tax cut totaling $1.35 trillion over 10 years was on the books.

Now, fast forward to 2005. The president is once again pushing an ambitious domestic agenda. This time the centerpiece is overhauling Social Security. Again, the critics say he's overreaching. This time he'll never get what he wants. This time he's got to deal with nerves and even outright rebellion within his own party.

Solution? Road trip. Even some of the stops in this Social Security tour sound familiar: North Dakota, Montana, Nebraska and Florida. Every one is a state Bush carried in November. And once again, each has a Democratic senator — several of whom face the voters in the current election cycle: Kent Conrad in North Dakota, Ben Nelson in Nebraska and Bill Nelson in Florida.

In Montana, the president will once again be leaning on Democrat Baucus, who is not up for re-election soon but who is still the ranking Democrat on the key Senate Finance Committee.

Of course, the issue this time around will be tougher. Tax cuts have a fundamental, built-in appeal and it's tough for a centrist politician from either party to vote against them. Social Security is a different animal. Drastic change worries people.

Nonetheless, the president predicts victory. That's his way. And he's used to getting his way.

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