Is President Bush shifting his position on carving private accounts out of Social Security? When asked if he'd consider dropping the accounts to get bipartisan agreement on a deal, the president simply dodged the question at his press conference on Wednesday. Instead, he suggested investment accounts were important as a means of selling a package of reforms that includes more painful measures, like cuts in benefits. "Personal accounts do not permanently fix the solution," he said. "They make the solution more attractive for the individual worker."
That was curious language for a president who has made private accounts the centerpiece of his Social Security proposals--and the most important part of his entire domestic agenda. It's only a week since his chief economic adviser, Allan Hubbard, told USA Today that a deal without investment accounts was "absolutely a non-starter."
The main message of this week's press conference was the need for a "permanent" solution. Bush said "permanent" or "permanently" no less than 11 times in the White House briefing room. Yet he admitted that private accounts were not part of that permanent fix. That's an important shift from his last session with the White House press corps last month, when he stressed "the wisdom of why personal accounts make sense for the long-term, to be a part of a long-term solution for Social Security." And it's an even bigger distance from his press conference in January, when he described personal accounts as the best way to sustain the current level of benefits. "Personal accounts are very important in order to make sure that young workers have got a shot at coming close to that which the government promises," he said.
It's not the only sign of retooling inside the president's campaign on Social Security. When Bush takes his road show to Florida this Friday, one major city won't be on the list. The White House last week scrapped plans to visit Sarasota, the home district of one of Bush's biggest supporters, GOP Rep. Katherine Harris. The former Florida secretary of state became a national figure when she oversaw the state's 2000 presidential recount. But Harris, now in her second congressional term, hasn't been wildly enthusiastic about Bush's Social Security reforms and, according to a spokesman, remains on the fence about private accounts. "She wants to make sure that seniors won't see any change in their benefits, and until then, she's simply listening to the debate," a Harris spokesman told NEWSWEEK.
One major reason: Harris's district has one of the nation's highest concentrations of seniors. About one in three citizens is over the age of 65, according to Census statistics. While the White House says the Sarasota trip was never confirmed, administration officials had tipped off at least one activist group working to promote Bush's Social Security plans about the president's itinerary. Last Wednesday, Progress for America began spreading the word among local reporters in Sarasota about Bush's visit, as part of their efforts to promote private accounts to local media in each city Bush visits. But on Thursday afternoon, the group backtracked, telling the Sarasota Herald Tribune, that scheduling problems had derailed the visit. (A PFA spokesman couldn't be reached for comment.)
Opponents of Bush's Social Security revamp were quick to pick up on the itinerary change, tying it to Harris's ambivalence about private accounts. On Tuesday, the Democratic National Committee issued a press release calling attention to Sarasota, titled "Death of a Sales Pitch." Harris's office downplayed any tensions with the White House, blaming an "overzealous volunteer" for the mix-up. Yet, breaking from White House tradition, Harris hasn't been invited to fly to Florida with Bush on Air Force One--and even if she were invited, it's unclear if Harris would accept. "She's really trying to stay on the sidelines for now," says a Harris spokesman.
Maybe that's what the president had in mind when he urged members of Congress to "start talking" about Social Security, warning them that "voters will appreciate people who come up with constructive suggestions."
Tear Down These Walls
Work could begin this summer on a major renovation of the legendary--but utterly dismal--White House briefing room and press work area. The move comes after a recent walk-through by federal building inspectors, who told administration officials that the cramped press quarters were a "firetrap" and generally unsafe.
Opened in 1970, the Brady Briefing Room has been portrayed in movies and on TV shows like "The West Wing" as modern and spacious. But in reality, the room is small and cramped, with theater-style seats that are broken and uncomfortable and workspaces that are small and overcrowded. Rodents are not unusual visitors, and last summer the General Services Administration removed one of the two bathrooms shared by White House correspondents after engineers found that repairing the toilet would cost more than $500,000.
Yet reporters have been generally wary of one of the proposed renovation plans, including one proposal that calls for a new workspace outside the West Wing. The National Park Service has proposed an underground press center, constructed underneath the driveway separating the White House and the Old Executive Office Building. Another plan would renovate the current digs, installing robotic cameras and microphones throughout the room.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the renovation talks are only "informal discussions" at this point. But even President Bush made mention of the proposed briefing room renovations at his press conference today. "Whoever thought about modernizing this room deserves a lot of credit," he joked. "There's very little oxygen in here anymore. And so for the sake of a healthy press corps and a healthy president, I'm going to end this press conference."
Even if the president doesn't like the place, he's at least warming to the reporters' work. In his first term, Bush said he didn't read news reports and got all the information he needed from his senior aides. On Wednesday he revealed his reading habits had changed. "Occasionally reading, I want you to know, in the second term," he said. "Your stories, that is."