- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The media longs for the curtain to fall prematurely on the Social Security debate, hoping to turn an epic Washington battle into an ordinary short story. And while many confuse preliminary political give and take with legislative climaxes, the public wants the show to go on.

President Bush is writing a longer, more complicated narrative: The Social Security program is sick, needs an injection of change and requires bipartisan medicine. Rank-and-file Americans increasingly agree with his story line, getting more comfortable with the White House’s plot as it develops — all positive signs despite chronic pessimism among many pundits.

Even the normally clear-thinking David Brooks at the New York Times went wobbly last week, writing a “Requiem for Reform” about Social Security, lining up culprits for a blame-game firing squad and executing them one by one with rhetorical bullets.

But prognostication is perilous, particularly with this president, and especially on Social Security. Watching major policy debates unfold as both an outside analyst and an inside player over the past 20 years, I see both predictable and distinctive elements of this debate that suggest the plot line is moving in the right direction for the White House.

Political scientists like Samuel Kernell label the president’s tactics “going public,” high-visibility campaigns to influence public opinion and move a legislative agenda. Other scholars like George C. Edwards, in his 2003 book “On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit,” note that whether it’s Teddy Roosevelt coining the term “bully pulpit,” FDR’s “fireside chats” or Richard Nixon institutionalizing or public-relations apparatus within the White House, all now believe “leading the public is at the core of the modern presidency.” But “going public” is not without risks — principally because success is not guaranteed. As Mr. Edwards writes, “one of the crowning ironies of the contemporary presidency is that at the same time that presidents increasingly attempt to govern by campaigning — going public — public support for presidential policies is elusive, perhaps more than ever before.” Observers point to aggressive interest groups, an inattentive public and partisan opposition in Congress as contributing to the president’s challenges.

Despite debate about the limits of going public as a presidential persuasion tactic, most agree that the White House must devote significant time and systematic attention to an issue to move the needle of public opinion using this strategy — one major speech. Even a State of the Union Address won’t do it.

Apparently, the White House read Mr. Edwards’ book. Repetition is this Mr. Bush’s middle name on Social Security — now in the midst of its 60-events-in-60-days strategy promoting reform. With the president seeding and fertilizing acres of public opinion on this issue, it’s still premature to predict the exact nature of the congressional harvest, but my guess is there will be one.

A recent Gallup Poll supports this view. In February, Americans were asked, “What do you think is the most important problem facing the country today?” Interestingly, Social Security now tops the list of domestic priorities — an extraordinary change from just a few months ago when Social Security barely registered. Now nearly 13 percent of respondents said Social Security was “the most important problem,” topping education, health insurance and the economy. Only a defense/foreign policy response “issues on the war in Iraq” (16 percent) ranked higher.

Republican lawmakers on Easter break need steely nerves as they traverse their districts holding townhall meetings. One Republican leadership aide said “some members are nervous about organized protests in their districts by liberal, anti-Republican groups.” But watching the president go public on the issue and seeing the impact of his unprecedented repetition of the problem should provide nervous lawmakers with confidence. Large majorities believe Social Security solvency is a problem, and even voluntary personal accounts have solid majority support in every age group, according to The Washington Post’s latest poll, except for senior citizens (who are exempted from creating accounts anyway).

Presidents rarely devote so much time, energy and political capital to one issue. Mr. Bush’s decision to go public is a high-wire act replete with risk, but the public response so far suggests it won’t be low- reward. Despite a few inevitable intermissions along the way, many acts remain in this political drama — let the show go on.

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