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Bush's choreographed Social Security events hide public's lukewarm reception

Saturday, March 12, 2005

SHREVEPORT, La. -- In state after state along President Bush's Social Security road campaign, hand-picked audiences cheer him, leaving the impression that the nation wholeheartedly backs his ideas for reform.

The reality is different.

While a majority of Americans approve of Bush's handling of terrorism and foreign policy, just 37 percent like his approach to Social Security, an Associated Press poll found.

"I've got a lot of educating to do to convince people not only that we have a problem, but we need to come together and come up with a solution to Social Security," Bush conceded at the end of a two-day swing through Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee and Louisiana.

Bush has held Social Security events in 14 states since his Feb. 2 State of the Union address.

At each one, the audience lends supportive applause when he talks about the federal retirement system's solvency problems and his desire to let younger workers set up private retirement accounts.

Only when dissenters manage to slip into the presidential events and voice their disapproval is there an inkling of what opinion polls clearly show: Not everyone is on board.

At a stop earlier in the day in Memphis, a young woman shouted "No" as Bush marketed his ideas onstage. The woman, one of four people who interrupted Bush's remarks, was escorted out of the event. A man in the crowd later shook his head and muttered aloud: "There's no guarantee. There's no guarantee," apparently in disagreement with Bush's proposals.

"There is difference of opinion, and I've got mine," Bush said in Memphis, Tenn. "I'm going to continue traveling our country until it becomes abundantly clear to the American people we have a problem."

A majority of Americans, 56 percent, say they disapprove of Bush's handling of Social Security. A similar number in a recent AP poll opposed the creation of personal accounts. Even people who approve of the way Bush has handled terrorism -- political independents, Catholics, married women, older Americans and Southerners -- have strong doubts about his Social Security plans.

"If he's having difficulty in selling his plan in red states, you can imagine how hard it will be in blue states," said Rep. Harold Ford Jr., a Democrat who represents much of Memphis and attended the event.

Apparently undaunted by polls that show less-than-enthusiastic support, Bush talked excitedly about how he was taking his Social Security road tour on to Florida, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado.

"I want everybody involved in the process to know that I believe the American people are going to determine the fate of this issue," Bush said. "I intend to take my message out week after week after week so the people can hear it."


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