How Bush Makes Sure They Agree

A memo illustrates the way the White House is selectively casting members of the under-30 set to promote its Social Security plan.

By Warren Vieth

Los Angeles Times

May 20, 2005

MILWAUKEE — As President Bush resumes his cross-country campaign to promote his vision of Social Security restructuring, it's no secret that he is relying on outside organizations to help provide the supporting cast.

Yet a memo circulated this week among members of one group, Women Impacting Public Policy, illustrates the lengths to which the White House has gone to make sure the right points are made at the president's public appearances.

"President Bush will be in Rochester, N.Y., for an upcoming event and has called on WIPP for help," said the memo to New York-area members, from one of the group's leaders. "He would like to visit with local workers about their views on Social Security."

The memo went on to solicit several types of people "who he would like to visit with" — including a young worker who "knows that [Social Security] could run out before they retire," a young couple with children who like "the idea of leaving something behind to the family" and a single parent who believes Bush's proposal for individual investment accounts "would provide more retirement options and security" than the current system.

The people solicited appeared to represent various arguments that Bush has been making for why Social Security should be overhauled. The memo requested an immediate response, because "we will need to get names to the White House."

Bush has proposed letting younger workers divert a portion of their payroll taxes into individual investment accounts that they would control. He has said the accounts should be part of a broader restructuring plan that would slow the growth of benefits to ensure Social Security's solvency.

The women's group memo said the White House was seeking only people younger than 29. It reflected the latest refinement of the White House strategy for promoting its Social Security plan: highlighting the benefits Bush sees for younger workers.

The theme was on full display Thursday as Bush took his campaign to Wisconsin, the 26th state he has visited to promote Social Security restructuring.

"You got any thoughts about Social Security?" Bush asked 22-year-old Concordia University senior Christy Paavola, one of five younger workers who appeared on stage with him at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

"Yes," Paavola said. "I don't think it's going to be there when I retire, which is really scary."

Many young people, the president commented, think they are paying into a retirement system that will never pay them back. He asked Paavola: "Got anything else you want to say?"

"I really like the idea of personal savings accounts," Paavola said.

"You did a heck of a job," Bush told her. "You deserve an A."

The participants in Thursday's event in Wisconsin appeared to mirror the criteria outlined in the memo to members of WIPP. In addition to Paavola, Bush was joined in Wisconsin by a preschool teacher, a small business owner, and a dairy farmer and his wife, who worked as a bookkeeper in a bank. None was older than 27.

WIPP describes itself as a bipartisan organization representing about 500,000 female business owners and employees. White House spokesman Trent Duffy declined to discuss the group's e-mail to prospective participants in the Rochester forum, an event that the White House has not announced.

Duffy said it was not unusual for the White House to work with such groups to identify people who could help Bush make the case for restructuring.

"Yes, the president is promoting his agenda," Duffy said. "Every president that preceded this one has used the bully pulpit to talk about their agenda. This president is doing the same."

But critics of the president's plan contended that the choreography of Bush's Social Security events deprived the public, and Bush, of the opportunity to weigh alternative approaches for dealing with the retirement system's financial needs.

"He's going around listening to people who agree with him," said Barbara Kennelly, a former House Democrat who heads the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, that opposes Bush's investment account plan. "It's unfortunate that this president never hears any opposition to a plan that has a lot of opposition."

Bush's Social Security events typically feature one policy expert and several workers or retirees who sit on stools next to the president and explain why they think personal accounts would be a good idea.

Although it is common practice for advocacy groups and political organizations to spotlight supportive views at public events, the WIPP memo suggests the White House has provided outside organizations with explicit instructions on the kind of participants it has in mind.

Seeking a college senior for Bush's Rochester event, it said: "Business/accounting/finance majors are typically the best candidates as they already understand the investment concepts."

Leah Maloy — the leadership activities director for the women's group, who distributed the memo — said it was sent to the organization's members in the New York area after the White House contacted the group seeking its help in recruiting participants.

WIPP co-founder Barbara Kasoff said the organization tried to maintain a bipartisan approach to public policy issues and had disseminated information about proposals backed by Democrats and Republicans.

"We do not yet support in any way, shape or form the president's plan for Social Security," Kasoff said. "This is a very controversial and emotion-laden issue for our members. We have members that are very supportive of the White House position. We also have many members who are absolutely not supportive."

While Bush visited Milwaukee, members of Congress continued to debate his plan, as well as alternative proposals to shore up Social Security.

Democrats, who almost uniformly oppose the major elements of Bush's plan, said they had an important new ally. They cited a statement released Thursday by Robert C. Pozen, a Massachusetts investment company executive whose proposal for altering the way future Social Security benefits might be calculated has become a model for part of Bush's own plan.

In the written statement, Pozen called on Bush to consider giving up the centerpiece of the his Social Security proposal — the individual investment accounts funded by payroll taxes, also called "carve-out accounts."

"Given the lack of bipartisan support for carve-out personal accounts, the president should not insist on carve-out accounts if the Democrats support an overall legislative package for Social Security reform that is otherwise satisfactory to him," Pozen said.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) issued a statement lauding Pozen's comments, saying carve-out accounts would add to the federal debt while draining money from the Social Security system.

A White House spokesman said Bush remained committed to accounts funded by the payroll tax.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.