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Bush Makes Slight Shift in Approach

Times Staff Writer

For all the resolve and optimism that he projected in his news conference Thursday night, President Bush’s remarks represented a subtle midcourse correction after weeks of political turbulence that have depressed his approval rating and support for the Republican majority in Congress.

After devoting most of his energy this year to his proposal to restructure Social Security, Bush opened the session by expressing concern about rising gas prices. That responded to fears among some congressional Republicans that the party appeared out of touch with the kitchen-table concerns of most Americans while focusing in recent weeks on such issues as judicial appointments, the legal struggle over Terri Schiavo and even the long-term health of Social Security.

On Social Security, Bush executed another subtle shift in emphasis. After previously emphasizing his plan to carve out private investment accounts from the Social Security system, Bush focused Thursday on proposals to close the system’s long-term financing gap, even if he offered few details. That responded to the belief among many congressional Republicans that the best, and perhaps only, way to jump-start Bush’s plan on Capitol Hill is to shift the debate’s focus from private accounts to solvency.

On both fronts, it’s not clear that the initiatives Bush offered will change the difficult political dynamic facing him. He urged Congress to pass energy legislation by this summer, but acknowledged that it would have no effect on the high prices consumers confront at the pump today. And though he provided somewhat more detail on his plans to stabilize Social Security’s long-term financing, there were few signs the proposal would crack the unified Democratic resistance that had stymied his call for creating private investment accounts.

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The rare prime-time news conference represented one of Bush’s most dramatic attempts to regain the initiative after a dreary spring of declining job approval ratings, rising economic anxiety keyed by soaring gas prices, continuing violence in Iraq and intensifying partisan hostility on Capitol Hill.

Most national polls released in the last few days have shown his approval rating slipping below the crucial 50% marker. In the most recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll, conducted April 18-21 and released this week, 48% of Americans said they approved of his performance and 49% disapproved.

That was the lowest approval rating Gallup has recorded for any president at this point in his second term since World War II -- except for Richard Nixon in 1973, when he was under siege in the Watergate scandal. “Bush is not in a real good place right now,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta.

But none of that pressure was apparent Thursday. Bush was relaxed and frequently joked with reporters during an hour-long session that never generated sparks or tension. Through 18 questions on subjects that included Social Security, Iraq and the political mood in Washington, the president appeared determined above all to project the two personal qualities that have served him best with his supporters: resolve and optimism.

“I’m an optimistic fellow,” he said in response to a question about the economy, and that answer could have been his refrain for the evening. Bush insisted that his policies were producing progress in Iraq and North Korea, on education and in the struggle against terrorism, and predicted that Congress would pass most of his agenda. He delivered an unwavering endorsement of John R. Bolton, his beleaguered nominee as U.N. ambassador, that marked perhaps his most forceful response of the night.

Bush offered one new initiative and discussed that only in broad terms. He said he would support revising the Social Security system so that future benefits “for low-income workers will grow faster than benefits for people who are better off” and all workers would be guaranteed benefits sufficient to lift them out of poverty in retirement.

One senior White House official said those words were meant to send “a clear signal Bush is supporting” a plan like the one proposed by Robert C. Pozen, an investment executive who has been close to Democrats. That plan would tie future Social Security benefits for more affluent families to the growth in prices, while linking benefits for lower-income workers to the growth in wages, which generally rise faster.

But while referring to Pozen indirectly, Bush never mentioned him by name and left himself much room to maneuver by declaring that all details of such a plan would “be a part of the negotiation process” with Congress.

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Republicans hope that Bush, by filling in a little more detail about how he wants to achieve long-term solvency, will increase pressure on Democrats to issue their own proposals.

“We’ve got to create even a little bit of cost on the Democratic side for opposing any action,” said a senior White House official. “Right now, I’m not sure where the cost is.”

But in their initial reactions, Democrats gave no indications that the broad ideas Bush presented Thursday night would dislodge them from their insistence that he publicly renounce private investment accounts before they began negotiations on changes to ensure Social Security’s long-term solvency.

“He still hangs onto this privatization,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said. “It doesn’t solve the problem.”

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And many of them immediately opened fire on Pozen’s approach, citing studies from the Social Security Administration and other sources that said it would result in significantly lower benefits for middle-class workers than they were promised under the current system.

Like other analysts, Abramowitz of Emory University said that Democrats now felt little pressure to negotiate with Bush on Social Security because they saw no evidence he was building support for his approach.

Generally, Bush has lost ground in public opinion about Social Security, even as he has escalated his effort to sell his ideas through a 60-day national tour that ends Sunday.

In ABC/Washington Post surveys, public approval of Bush’s handling of Social Security has dropped from 38% in January to 35% in March to 31% in a survey released this week.

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Support for Bush’s proposal to carve out private accounts from Social Security has also eroded. The most recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup, NBC/Wall Street Journal and ABC/Post surveys all have found a majority of Americans opposing the idea.

Republicans are most optimistic about the surveys that have found an increase this year in the percentage of Americans who call Social Security the most important problem facing the country.

But concerns about the program don’t see much that is different -- or more urgent -- today than at any other point in recent years. A wide variety of public polls this year reached the same bottom line: About half of Americans believe Social Security faces serious long-term problems, but about one-sixth believes it faces a crisis.

Taken together, those attitudes have left Bush in a position where the public doubts about his specific proposals appear to be trumping the general sense that the system eventually will need retooling.

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Karlyn H. Bowman, a resident fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said support for Bush’s ideas might grow if the economy picked up and increased optimism about investing in the stock market. But she noted that his room to reverse the public resistance to fundamental Social Security restructuring may be limited. “In terms of substantive arguments, I don’t know how much farther he can go,” she said.

“We may simply have misread all of those hypothetical questions that were asked [about creating private accounts] from 1995 through mid-2004, when this issue didn’t seem real. All of a sudden, Bush made it real and people weren’t as sure they wanted to make a big change.”

Bush seemed well aware of that challenge at his news conference when he acknowledged that he was asking Congress to do “hard work” on Social Security. But, characteristically for the evening, he insisted, “I’m optimistic we’ll get something done.”

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Times staff writers Richard Simon and Warren Vieth contributed to this report.


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