Watch CBSN Live

Bush Changes Social Security Tune

Facing skepticism over his call to create private Social Security accounts, President Bush is beginning to emphasize the less contentious need to solve the retirement system's long-term fiscal problems.

"Let's fix this permanently. Let's don't slap a Band-Aid on the problem," Mr. Bush said Friday in Memphis, Tenn. "My call to people from both political parties is: now is the time to put aside our political differences and focus on solving this problem for generations of Americans to come."

By the end of the day, Mr. Bush's Social Security travels will have taken him to 14 states since his Feb. 2 State of the Union address. Visits to Florida, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona are to come later this month.

However, a new poll Associated Press poll released Friday shows Mr. Bush is losing ground in the Social Security debate, with only 37 percent of Americans supporting his approach.

The president's drive for private accounts has run up against opposition from congressional Democrats, who are nearly unanimously against the idea, as well as Republicans nervous about potentially negative political fallout.

So, in hopes of making it easier for more Republicans to go along with him, Mr. Bush has been spending more time discussing Social Security's future solvency. He also has focused much of his traveling on areas represented by GOP lawmakers who are either still on the fence or are taking heat for backing his proposal.

Mr. Bush's Memphis stop was aimed partly at Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., who represents a district that touches the fringes of the city and its suburbs. The Democratic National Committee ran ads to coincide with Mr. Bush's visit that slammed the president's private accounts proposal and told listeners to encourage Blackburn to oppose it.

Blackburn, who did not return to Tennessee from Washington to appear with Mr. Bush, has been supportive of creating private accounts, but only after the Social Security system's long-term solvency has been addressed, said spokesman Ryan Loskarn.

But Mr. Bush is finding his plan a tough sell, even in places where he's enormously popular – like Alabama, which he visited Thursday.

David Bronner, who runs Alabama's state pension, one of the most successful in the nation, calls private Social Security accounts a "dumb idea. Basically what you've got is you're taking a program that has a problem and you're creating your own crisis."

Ironically, Bronner's a fan of private investment, reports CBS News Chief White House Correspondent John Roberts. Putting the state's money in everything from stocks to hotels and golf courses, he grew Alabama's state pension from $500 million to more than $26 billion.

Bronner argues that the president's proposal guts Social Security's cash flow. And, he adds, individual investments are far different than institutional investing.

Republicans discovered those same concerns in recent polling, and Roberts found them at Montgomery's Farmer's Market cafe. Older Americans, like Carolyn Howton, who voted for Mr. Bush, worry their children and grandchildren won't invest wisely.

"I don't think the public in general is going to have the expertise," Howton says.

The level of skepticism about the president's proposal in Alabama would seem remarkable After all he walked away with 63 percent of the vote here in November.

His visit to Alabama is more than just a pep rally. He needs to convince even people who supported him that his plan is the best plan.

In this state, where one in five people draw Social Security, there's almost universal agreement it needs some kind of fix – and many voters are willing to put faith in the president.

"If 'W' wants to do it, I'm sure it's great," said Dr. Felix Tankersley.

But among the people President Bush must rely on to get his plan through faith is not enough.

"I'm not convinced of any plan," says Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala. "I'm not convinced of the president's plan or any of the other plans."

No question President Bush is doing all he can to give skeptical Republicans political cover. But until he gives them more to chew on than just talk about private accounts they say they're going to stay on the fence.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue