President Takes Medicare Plan on Midwest Tour

President Bush is touring the Midwest. He is promoting his new Medicare drug plan among seniors. Some say the system is too complicated to use easily.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. President Bush spent yesterday in Missouri and Iowa, trying to convince seniors that Medicare's new prescription drug benefit is less confusing than it seems. The benefit was designed to win over a voting block often suspicious of Republicans, but it's become another burden in this election year. The latest ABC News Washington Post poll says only 31 percent of Americans trust Republicans over Democrats when it comes to helping seniors pay for their medications.

NPR White House David Green traveled with Mr. Bush yesterday and joins us now. Good morning.

DAVID GREEN reporting:

Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: David, what was the Midwestern tour supposed to accomplish all together?

GREEN: Well, the president's trying to get a positive message out on Medicare. There's a deadline coming for May 15 for seniors to enroll in the plan, and the period leading up to that could be pretty crucial. Democrats and other critics are using this Easter recess, when members of Congress are back home, to paint the plan as a debacle and say it's too complicated for seniors. And it could be a pretty big issue this election year.

In Missouri, where the president was yesterday, Republican Senator Jim Talent is in a tough reelection battle. His opponent was planning to be roaming the state in an RV and knocking the drug benefit. So Mr. Bush came in yesterday to try to give him a boost. And Talent was standing right next to the president as they were talking to seniors and chatting about the plan yesterday.

MONTAGNE: Well, can a visit like this really make a difference?

GREEN: Well, it surely gives Mr. Bush a chance to get his message out and give it a lot of exposure and make sure that his defense has a chance to be heard. He told an audience in Jefferson City, the state capital, that their have been glitches in the program, but that with a little help, seniors can ask questions and learn about the plan.

I think we have some tape here. This is Mr. Bush talking yesterday on the stage to a woman named Helen Robinette(ph).

President GEORGE W. BUSH: You know, you were paying $300 a month, and now, you're paying about $100.

Ms. HELEN ROBINETTE (Resident, Missouri): Yeah, probably sometimes it's not even $100, you know. Then also, I had…

Pres. BUSH: So your insurance friend laid it out for you?

Ms. ROBINETTE: Yeah.

Pres. BUSH: Explained it.

Ms. ROBINETTE: Yep, yep. She did. She did. She was very nice, very nice.

Pres. BUSH: Well--she's supposed to be.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROBINETTE: We were kind of dense and didn't understand it.

Pres. BUSH: No, listen--but that--you're not alone. When you're--I mean, this can be confusing to folks.

Ms. ROBINETTE: It is.

GREEN: And that was the message from the president. It can be confusing, but we can take care of that. But the White House likes to say that 29 million people are enrolled in the program. In truth, a lot of those people already had some kind of drug coverage. But among those Medicare beneficiaries who did not have coverage, well less than half have actually signed up for the program. So the administration has a lot of work to do in the next month before the deadline.

MONTAGNE: Okay, so a rocky start for the Medicare drug plan. Last year, there was social security. That didn't go anywhere. The immigration bill, this year, looks uncertain. All together, it seems like a tough time for the president's domestic agenda.

GREEN: Well, and a tough time for the president. He's at his lowest point to date in most all of the polls right now. But more so than his approval rating, I think of even greater concern to Republicans is that on nearly every issue--Medicare, immigration, the economy, the war in Iraq--voters say they trust Democrats more than they do Republicans. Even the national security issue is now a tie between the two parties.

MONTAGNE: Is there time for the president to recover this year? I'm guessing some legislators would hope so.

GREEN: Absolutely. As I said, this could be an important month for the Medicare debate. We still don't know how the immigration debate's going to go once Congress returns. If you look at where the president goes, his political boost--he gets, usually, a political boost when the war in Iraq seems to be going better. So I think it's safe to say, if things calm down in Iraq, that might be the best opportunity for him to make a bit of a comeback in the polls.

MONTAGNE: Well, of course, now there's Iran. The president is dealing with that policy challenge since Iran has announced that it has successfully enriched uranium, in defiance, of course, of U.S. warnings.

GREEN: Indeed, Iran's announcement yesterday came a day after Mr. Bush was trying downplay reports that the military has been considering potential strikes on Iran sometime in the future. So now, the White House has to juggle this. They're trying to say they're not going to be planning some war in Iran. But they're going to be going to the U.N. and trying to convince their Security Council partners that it's time to act.

MONTAGNE: David, thanks very much.

GREEN: My pleasure, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR White House correspondent David Green.

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