President Bush opened an intensified push for his Social Security overhaul on Friday, telling a crowd in New Jersey that the government retirement system's long-standing problems urgently need fixing.
"Very soon, in a very quick period of time, as a matter of fact in 2018, the money going out exceeds the money coming in to Social Security," Mr. Bush said before thousands of mostly hand-picked supporters. "Now 2018, some people say that's pretty far down the road. ... We're talking about right around the corner when you think about it. Those of us in public office must look down the road."
Part of Mr. Bush's plan involves allowing younger workers to set up personal retirement accounts with a portion of Social Security taxes, and the president said the interest from those accounts would be in addition to — not instead of — the traditional benefit check. He did not mention that future retirees' government checks would be lower as a result.
"See, personal accounts is an add-on to that which the government is going to pay you. It doesn't replace the Social Security system," he said. "It is a part of getting a better rate of return."
Calling his plan an "add-on" was an interesting choice of words. That is the term Democrats use to describe their alternative plan, an account that workers would be free to set up outside the Social Security system without diverting any portion of payroll taxes.
The president's use of the term suggested support for the Democratic idea — something on which the White House has been deliberately vague in public.
Mr. Bush also offered language meant to suggest he has no intention of entirely killing a popular government program credited with keeping millions of seniors out of poverty.
"Social Security provided a safety net for many retirees and that's an important safety net," Mr. Bush said. "But the safety net has got a hole in it and we need to make sure we save that safety net for future generations in America."
The White House has been claiming progress in the effort to bring Americans around to Mr. Bush's view. But recent developments, and the president's retooled remarks that appeared tailored to counteract criticism, suggest otherwise.
Areleased Thursday found that while more Americans were aware of Mr. Bush's Social Security plan, support for it had dropped to a new low (43 percent) and a majority (51 percent) called it a bad idea.
Earlier in the week, Sen. Charles Grassley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee recommended focusing instead on the long-term solvency of Social Security. That reflected doubts in Republican ranks about the president's desire for personal accounts.
Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, remain almost unanimously opposed to Mr. Bush's Social Security plan.
"Republicans are talking about a privatization plan that cuts benefits, adds trillions in debt and does nothing to strengthen the program," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said. "That is unacceptable and the American people are rejecting that approach."
Mr. Bush was traveling later Friday to South Bend, Ind., and both stops were meant to shore up the electoral prospects of Republican lawmakers — Mike Ferguson of New Jersey and Chris Chocola of Indiana — who are getting heat over the issue.
Ferguson has not yet taken a position on Mr. Bush's proposal, and while introducing Bush he merely talked about the "important national conversation" the president has launched. Chocola has said town meetings in his district last week left him willing to follow Bush's lead, even as he talked of the difficulty of the politics surrounding the issue.
The Democratic Party shadowed the president's travels with radio advertisements in New Jersey and Indiana that accused Mr. Bush of putting forward a "risky scheme" that would "end Social Security's guaranteed benefits." And advocates opposed to Mr. Bush's ideas scheduled rallies near both events.
Mr. Bush's trip marked the start of a new two-month blitz in which he and other top administration officials are visiting 29 states. Mr. Bush already has attended Social Security events in eight states since his Feb. 2 State of the Union address.
Unwilling to allow the president to remain alone on the national stage on the issue, Democratic senators planned their own "fix it, don't nix it" forums in four cities over two days.
Although Mr. Bush has not put forward a comprehensive plan, he foresees no change for current retirees or workers age 55 and older. Younger Americans, however, could divert up to 4 percent of their income subject to Social Security taxes into personal accounts in exchange for a reduction in their guaranteed benefit.
But other tax increases or benefit cuts would be needed as well to bring the system into solvency.