WASHINGTON -- President Bush is using a light touch with the third rail of politics. He wants to make big, benefit-cutting changes to Social Security for those who don't trust the program anyhow and promises a hands-off approach for older Americans who consider it a birthright.
The strategy is a result of polling that shows support for Bush's plan is strongest among the youngest workers and weakest among the oldest, with a key demographic group evenly divided: people who are 55 to 64 years old, those closest to retiring.
With those political realities in mind, Bush used his State of the Union address to urge Congress to allow some people to divert Social Security taxes into private investment accounts.
But the president plans to exempt people 55 and above. By cleaving the baby boom generation, Bush sought to calm Republicans and convert Democrats in a Congress taught to tread lightly on the Depression-era program.
"It's dicey, but it might work," said Democratic strategist Jim Duffy. "He's telling people who are directly impacted by Social Security, the people getting it now or about to get it, 'You don't have to worry about me cutting your benefits. But there's not enough money to go around so your children and grandchildren are going to play by a different game."'
"Bush knows that their children and grandchildren don't believe they'll get Social Security anyhow," Duffy said.
Indeed, a recent Democratic poll found that nearly two-thirds of people under 50 believe that Social Security will pay lower or no benefits when they retire. People over 50 have much more confidence in the system.
Independent pollsters with the Pew Research Center found that 58 percent of people 18 to 54 support private investment accounts. Among those 55 and older, only 45 percent express support.
In a troubling sign for Bush, a recent GOP poll found that sentiment swings against personal accounts when near-retirees are exposed to a series of arguments for and against Bush's plan.
"It is important to consider this data in the context of the 2006 midterm elections," said the polling memo distributed to GOP lawmakers. "Voters 55 years of age or older will make up fully 40 percent of the vote."
Young voters and near-retirees may be less receptive when they learn the details of Bush's plan: a big reduction in benefits for young workers when the retire, larger still if they choose to establish a personal account. Nervous Republican lawmakers are already talking about lowering the exemption age to 50.
Bush is gambling that the country has changed enough demographically (fewer Depression-era voters who view Social Security as untouchable) and economically (more people with experience in the investor class) for him to tackle a political taboo. Politicians have long been warned that Social Security is "the third rail of politics," a reference to the deadly effect of touching the electrified rail that makes some trains go.
"He may be right" in thinking times have changed, said Democratic consultant Steve McMahon, "but I don't think so. This is still an issue that Democrats start out with a lot of credibility and Republicans don't. What the president seems to be saying is that if you're 55 today, you won't have benefits cuts, but if you're 55 tomorrow, you will. That won't fly."
Bush also is counting on getting credit for trying big things. In addition to overhauling Social Security, the president wants to place limits on medical malpractice lawsuits, require math and reading tests for high school students and push through his slate of conservative federal judges -- not to mention his vision of a democratic, peaceful Middle East starting with Iraq.
Democrats, divided and still stumbling after election defeats in November, struggle to respond to Bush. They're quick to criticize him, but slow to offer solutions of their own, some Democrats acknowledge.
"It's an important thing to stop the worst of what the president is doing on foreign and domestic policies, but we can't be viewed as the defenders of the status quo," said Democratic consultant Steve Ricchetti, a top adviser in the Clinton White House.
Bush and his advisers believe Social Security is part of a broad agenda that, if enacted, would solidify a GOP majority.
"By allowing more Americans to build wealth through low-risk investments and a nest egg they can pass onto their children, Social Security reform will create a larger constituency for pro-growth, pro-ownership, pro-free market politicians and policies," said GOP chairman Ken Mehlman.
Democrats must hope that the nation's new demographics don't water down their old arguments against change.
"Republicans are killing Social Security! They're killing Social Security! That's been our mantra and still we've lost seats in the House and the Senate," Duffy said.
"The difference this time is it's no longer hypothetical. We have a president who admits he wants to change Social Security. It's no longer just a GOP boogyman," the Democrat consultant said. "It's a real man. And a real fight."
EDITOR'S NOTE -- Ron Fournier has covered politics for The Associated Press since 1993.