The Oval: Heavy Going

Exactly one month ago, George W. Bush kicked off his campaign to overhaul Social Security in earnest, pitching his plan for personal retirement accounts directly to the American people and Congress in his State of the Union address. In his speech, Bush made no bones about it: remaking Social Security would be his top domestic priority of the year, if not his entire second term. The president promised he would do whatever it takes to sell his Social Security plan, and to prove it, he immediately took his case on the road, hitting five states in less than 48 hours to convince the public and a skeptical Congress of the retirement plan's looming crisis.

Since then, Bush has traveled to another four states--at least one trip a week--to hold campaign-style Social Security rallies. He's hosted more than a dozen private meetings at the White House with members of Congress and lobbied skeptical lawmakers face-to-face on Air Force One. Yet a month later, the White House is still no closer to its goal of passing legislation this year. Bush faces many of the same obstacles he did before the State of the Union. Congressional Democrats still remain remarkably united against the president's proposal for private accounts. But perhaps most disappointing to the administration is that Bush still hasn't closed the deal with many of his closest supporters, including several dozen House and Senate Republicans who worry that tinkering with Social Security could jeopardize their political majority in Congress.

Despite Bush's outreach effort, public support for fixing Social Security hasn't dramatically changed in the last four weeks. In a number oft-cited by White House advisers, about seven in 10 Americans agree with the president that Social Security will eventually go bankrupt if Congress fails to act, according to a recent poll for The Washington Post. Yet, the same survey shows that barely one in four Americans believes an imminent crisis exists. Meanwhile, a USA Today/Gallup poll out this week shows that just one in three Americans approves of Bush's handling of Social Security, his lowest rating since he took office in 2001. In January, the same poll found Americans divided evenly when asked if Social Security needs major changes within the next two years. This week, 59 percent of those polled said Social Security doesn't need to be changed right away.

Bush has even come under fire from his own supporters. On Tuesday, the Free Enterprise Fund, a pro-privatization group headed up by former Club for Growth president Stephen Moore, issued a memo highly critical of the White House's handling of Social Security reform. "One hates to admit it, but so far the Bush administration has made a hash of its campaign to allow workers to invest part of their payroll taxes ... through personal retirement accounts," the group said. "It's puzzling why the administration isn't selling personal retirement accounts the way Ronald Reagan would have: on the grounds that the accounts will make workers' retirement more secure and more prosperous." Unless Bush takes a page out of the Reagan playbook, the group said, the president's campaign is "doomed to failure."

K Street lobbyists haven't been wildly enthusiastic about Social Security reform either. Groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have publicly questioned the president's priorities when it comes to the program, and so far, the chamber and other business groups typically friendly to the administration's policies haven't put much muscle into the reform fight--an ambivalence the White House has noticed. Last week, while Bush was on his fence-mending tour of Europe, White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove personally briefed business and financial-industry lobbyists on the administration's Social Security game plan. But, according to one attendee, the session was more "promotional than informational." Rove avoided specifics, telling participants several times--as Bush and his advisers have stated publicly--that "all ideas remain on the table." He urged the lobbyists to step up their pressure on Congress to act.

At the White House, the president's aides insist they are unconcerned by all the ballyhoo inside the Beltway. "The more churning and chafe out there, the better," says one senior aide. The president is especially pleased that Democrats have changed their rhetorical position--from denying there's a serious problem to debating who has the best policies to fix it. Inside the West Wing, Bush's strategists have mapped out a game plan that extends well beyond this initial phase, including lots of domestic travel by the president to drive local media coverage and maintain pressure on individual members of Congress. But they caution that it's too early to conclude how the debate will end at a time when it's only just begun. "This is being covered as if the vote is imminent. It's not," says the senior aide. "It's like a ship in a harbor. It's going to take a while to get it to turn around."

For the moment, the ship is struggling to stay afloat. Congressional Republicans have directed their fire away from the president's proposals and aimed instead at the White House's tactics and timeline. Criticizing the process is a Washington obsession that concerns few outside this political universe. But it's also an important early warning that the White House needs to shift tack quickly. As Charles Grassley, the understated Iowa Republican who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, pointed out: unless the White House shifts the poll numbers soon, "you might have some question about the president succeeding."