Seven Reasons Social Security Shift Isn't Selling

President Bush and retiree Betty Batterbee

President Bush and retiree Betty Batterbee, during a discussion on Social Security in South Bend, Ind., March 4, 2005. Reuters hide caption

itoggle caption Reuters

Again this week, President Bush will be on tour to promote his premier policy goal, a fundamental remake of the Social Security program. It's part of a promised 60-day blitz by the administration to raise popular support for basic change in the program — including private accounts.

It's too early to say how the pitch will weather these 60 days, but Mr. Bush's efforts in this regard were strikingly unsuccessful in February, and that has a lot of Republicans worried.

Remarkably consistent polling numbers show private accounts began with solid majority support early in the year but slid in recent weeks. Even as the president gave the issue his top priority, the popularity of his favored solution waned.

The president laughed off the trend, saying he had carried his sales case to just nine cities so far. Now he's targeting another 60, including four this week.

The style and feel of these rallies is familiar to anyone who followed the president's re-election campaign last year. Each stop on the tour is carefully choreographed, with friendly audiences guaranteed by strategic ticket distribution. On stage, each event features a folksy, freewheeling presentation by the president. That's followed by on-stage interviews with "fellow citizens" who hold forth on the dire straits facing Social Security and the restorative powers of private investing.

We saw much the same shtick last year, as the president won his second term. From day to day, the show barely changed. And most days, it looked and sounded better on TV than whatever Democratic challenger John Kerry was doing.

Now President Bush is doing much the same set of riffs he did during the campaign and during earlier forays into the heartland pitching the war in Iraq and the tax cuts of 2001. The president himself refers often to these precedents, making the point that people have underestimated him before. Once he gets his juggernaut rolling on Social Security, Mr. Bush suggests, the naysayers will be shown their error.

Perhaps. But so far at least we have not sensed the same spirit or power moving in the land.

So what's wrong this time around? What's different about this issue or this mission or this moment in time?

The answer is that many things are different. For the sake of brevity, here are seven:

1. The subject has changed. Mr. Bush is no longer selling the one product he has been most adept at selling: himself. In both his 2000 and 2004 campaigns, the president benefited from being more likable than his opponents. But his persona is no longer the goods being offered for sale. Now we are talking about a system of government benefits literally everyone has a stake in. Polls show people continue to like and trust Mr. Bush, in roughly the same percentages as on Election Day. But that has yet to translate into support for the Social Security changes.

2. There's no villain to bash. Last fall, zingers at the expense of John Kerry were usually the hottest applause lines of the president's stump speeches. By the use of such lines, the official re-election team could also connect audiences to the negative ad campaigns being run by various allies without endorsing those campaigns directly. These tactics were highly effective in 2004. But right now, they are largely useless because Mr. Bush is no longer running against anybody. In 2001, it was possible to run against high taxes and Washington. In 2003, there was Saddam Hussein. It's hard to find a comparable devil in actuarial tables.

3. A good straw man is hard to find. To be sure, the White House and some of its more obstreperous supporters have tried to find someone to cast in the bogeyman role. The AARP has come in for scathing criticism for opposing the private accounts, even though in 2003 the seniors group was the president's key collaborator in creating a new prescription drug benefit within Medicare. The president also attempts to demonize "some people in Washington" who say there's no problem with Social Security. The problem here is that it's hard to put a face on this straw man. All the famous Democrats are saying Social Security has a long-term financing problem but that there's time to fix it without private accounts as part of the fix.

4. The playing field has gotten bigger. To win re-election in 2004, the president only had to campaign seriously in a handful of swing states. He knew he could count on two-dozen or more "red states" that were in the bag. Now, he has to take his Social Security campaign into many of those red states for some major heavy lifting. Take for example this week's targets: Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Louisiana.

5. The timing is awful. True, the time to strike is while the iron is hot, and second terms have a way of cooling every president's iron. But right now the country is anxious about Iraq and several potential war zones elsewhere. Economists, even the suddenly friendly Alan Greenspan of the Federal Reserve Board are increasingly dour about the deficit. That means less support for any Social Security transition strategy based largely on borrowing, especially given that same strategy is being floated to pay for the war in Iraq, prescription drugs in Medicare, fixing the alternative minimum tax and making the tax cuts of the first term permanent.

6. There's no sex appeal. In 2001, President Bush could range across the land, promising to let Americans keep more of what they earned. What could sound better? In 2003, the president pushed for his invasion of Iraq, selling it as our duty to the world but also as our national revenge for the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. That sounded pretty satisfying, too, to many Americans. But where is the allure and satisfaction of benefit cutbacks?

7. There's too much math. As soon as you start trying to sell a plan to change Social Security, you realize how tough the subject is for English majors. The details are deadly, suspiciously complicated and filled with potential deal-killers. When the president asked for tax cuts, he kept most of the substance of those cuts easy to understand. It does not appear possible to do the same with Social Security. Couple this with the surprise at the heart of the Bush proposal — the fact that private accounts do not help close the financing gap for Social Security — and you have a hard sale that tends to turn people off as they learn more about it. Every salesman likes to say his product sells itself, but a good salesman will soon know whether it really does or not.

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