Is Bush Carving Out Some Wiggle Room?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Monday, March 7, 2005; 12:35 PM

There are two couldn't-be-more-different ways of introducing private accounts into the Social Security system.

You can either take the money out of current Social Security payroll taxes -- that's the "carve-out" model. Or, much less radically, you can create an additional program to supplement Social Security -- that's the "add-on" model.

President Bush has been adamantly "carve-out" for as long as anyone can remember.

So what was the White House press corps to make of it on Friday when Bush suddenly started talking "add-on"? Well, to put it bluntly, they were so confused they didn't say much of anything.

Here you had the president -- clearly under pressure to turn things around in his so-far losing battle to get the public behind him on Social Security -- apparently blurting out something that sounded an awful lot like news.

But only if anyone could figure out what it meant.

According to the transcript of Bush's remarks in New Jersey, he started off conventionally, describing his personal-account proposal to let workers "put 4 percent of the money -- the payroll tax -- aside in a personal account."

But then he unveiled a slightly new formulation: "[I]t's your money, and the interest off that money goes to supplement the Social Security check that you're going to get from the federal government."

And then, maybe trying to clear things up, he said: "See, personal accounts is an add-on to that which the government is going to pay you. It doesn't replace the Social Security system. It is a part of making -- getting a better rate of return, though, so -- to come closer to the promises made. That's important to know."

The Washington Post's Mike Allen explained how Bush's phrasing came as a bit of a stunner to the corps, on NBC's Meet the Press with Tim Russert on Sunday morning:

"MR. ALLEN: Well, the president on Friday described private and personal accounts as an add-on to Social Security, something extra. And that set off a lot of bells because Democrats said either he's being deceptive or he's completely changed his negotiating position. I checked on this. The White House says he has not changed anything. They said it's just how it came out and you won't hear that again.

"The private accounts/personal accounts/individual accounts is essential to their idea of having more stock owners in the country, which . . . they see it as a stake through the heart of the New Deal. It's not -- you know, this White House talks a lot about changing the goalposts. If you suddenly get add-on accounts, that's the Clinton agenda. And there haven't been a lot of Bush things that were about finishing the Clinton agenda."

Bartlett Tries to Explain

So was it a slip of the tongue? A trial balloon? An attempt to co-opt his opponents' language? An attempt to confuse the issue? An example of cluelessness?

White House counselor Dan Bartlett tried to explain on "Fox News Sunday" but left even anchor Chris Wallace visibly confused.

Fox doesn't Web-post transcripts, but here's how it went. Wallace showed the seminal Bush clip then asked:

"Mr. Bartlett, that's not right. The president's plan is not an add-on, is it?

"BARTLETT: Absolutely. Absolutely.

"WALLACE: It's an add-on?

"BARTLETT: Absolutely. See, this . . .

"WALLACE: Well, wait a minute. Wouldn't it take revenue out of Social Security?

"BARTLETT: Well, an add-on in the respect that there is disinformation being spread across the country that there will be no government benefit provided to future retirees. That is absolutely false. Every person who would select and voluntarily take a personal retirement account would be able to still receive benefits from the government.

"Added on to that benefit would be the returns from a personal retirement account. So in that essence, it is an add-on.

"WALLACE: But forgive me, most people up on Capitol Hill, when they talk about add-ons, are talking about you're going to have your regular, full, unchanged Social Security, and then we're going to add on the idea of personal accounts.

"The plan the president's talking about, you would be taking revenues out of Social Security and if you invested in the accounts, you would lose some of your guaranteed benefits under Social Security.

"BARTLETT: Well, you're not taking revenues out of Social Security. You're giving those revenues directly to the recipients, allowing it to grow in an account, which is a critical part of making sure that individuals are able to realize. . . .

"WALLACE: But they would be putting it in private accounts, not into the . . .

"BARTLETT: They would be putting it in personal accounts . . .

"WALLACE: Right.

"BARTLETT: . . . but that's not to say that would be their only source of income. There would still be a safety net provided by the government to each recipient.

"And I think it's people who talk about the fact that there would be no change to the system under their plans is misleading the public. There is going to be changes to the system. We cannot afford the benefits that are being promised to future generations."

Fact Check posted a "fact check" of Bush's remarks.

"Claim: 'It's your money, and the interest off that money goes to supplement the Social Security check that you're going to get from the federal government. Personal accounts is an add-on to that which the government is going to pay you. It doesn't replace the Social Security system. It is a part of getting a better rate of return to come closer to the promises made.'

"CNN Fact Check: The statement is misleading. The president says the money from the private account is an 'add-on' to the traditional plan, which implies that a retiree under this plan would receive the same check he or she would normally get under the current system, and additional money from a private account. That is incorrect.

"It is true that a retiree who opts for the private account plan would essentially receive two Social Security checks each month: one from the traditional plan (which the president refers to as 'the federal government') and a second from the private account. But the check the retiree would receive from the federal government would be smaller than if the retiree had stayed in the traditional system."

So Was It a Trial Ballon?

Julian Borger wrote in the Guardian: "The use of language appeared to signal a political manoeuvre."

And in fact, Bush's comment/slip didn't come in a vacuum. Some Republicans are urging "add-on" as a possible face-saving compromise. It's quite possible Bush has been hearing a lot of talk about "add-on" behind closed doors lately.

Just this past Wednesday, for instance, the White House left Treasury Secretary John Snow hanging when he indicated "add-on" might be an option.

Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen wrote in Thursday's Washington Post about that: "Snow told reporters that Bush also has not ruled out embracing a plan backed by many Democrats to create government-subsidized personal savings accounts outside the existing system. White House officials are privately telling Republicans that Bush is opposed to the idea but does not want to say so because it would appear he is not willing to compromise."

Bush has repeatedly said that the only thing off the table when it comes to Social Security's future is an increase in the payroll tax rate.

And he's been equally adamant that private accounts should be on the table.

At his January press conference, for instance, he said: "Any solution must confront the problem fully and directly by making the system permanently solvent and providing the option of personal accounts."

But my quick check through his remarks shows he actually hasn't been as definitive in saying those accounts must be carve-outs." When he describes the accounts as "carve-outs," he calls that an "idea" -- rather than an ultimatum.

So is he open to "add-on" instead of "carve-out"?

Here again is Barlett, not exactly clearing that up either, on Sunday afternoon on CNN's Late Edition With Wolf Blitzer:

"BLITZER: Let's talk about some of the proposals Democrats and others are floating.

"For example, take the private accounts that you want, the private retirement accounts, but take it outside of the Social Security system, as what they call an add-on, and make a new entitlement, if you will, giving people the opportunity to have these private retirement accounts, but not use Social Security money to create it.

"Is that something you're open to?

"BARTLETT: Well, Wolf, this is the very type of thing we want. We want people to put solutions on the table, different ideas.

"And what President Bush has instructed all of us to do is not to take judgments, not say what is a good idea or a bad idea, but to applaud the process."

The Coverage

In the immediate wake of Bush's comments, many major media players didn't mention the "add-on" comment. The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Knight-Ridder, the Chicago Tribune and many others didn't report a word about it.

Anne E. Kornblut and Sam Roberts wrote in the New York Times: "One proposal in circulation would allow individuals to invest in personal retirement accounts on top of their current payroll taxes, as an 'add-on,' rather than diverting payments from the existing system. Mr. Bush has been cool to the 'add-on,' approach, but he used that very phrase on Friday to describe his vision for the plan."

And they tried to get the White House to explain:

"Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman, said Mr. Bush was not embracing the alternate plan, which he said would amount to creating an entirely new program outside Social Security. Instead, Mr. Duffy said the president used the term 'add-on' to describe his own proposal."

Ken Fireman wrote in Newsday that Bush had borrowed the "add-on" phrasing and he speculated about its meaning: "On Wednesday Treasury Secretary John Snow suggested the administration might be open to such an approach. But Bush has not followed up publicly on Snow's hint, and his language on Friday seemed to be more a rhetorical adjustment than a signal of willingness to compromise."

Jennifer Loven wrote for the Associated Press: "Calling his plan an 'add-on' was an interesting choice of words. . . . The president's use of the term suggested support for the Democratic idea -- something on which the White House has been deliberately vague in public."

Filling Bush's Bubble

I've been writing a lot lately about how the audiences at Bush's "conversations" about Social Security are screened of dissenters.

But Holly Bailey, Richard Wolffe and Tamara Lipper write in Newsweek that the audiences are actually full of ringers.

"The White House likes to call them 'regular folks' -- people with real-life questions about the president's agenda. Only some are more regular than others. Carlos Huertas was billed as a concerned grandfather and hard-working engineer when he sat onstage next to President Bush to talk about retirement accounts in downtown Tampa, Fla., last month."

But, Newsweek reports: "The Florida granddad is an activist for FreedomWorks, a conservative group founded by former vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp and Dick Armey, the former House GOP leader. . . .

"FreedomWorks officials tell Newsweek they have worked closely with the administration to coordinate the town halls, often suggesting names of the people onstage. At least five of its activists have appeared with Bush, and the group has bused hundreds to eight of his events in recent weeks. By the group's own tally, at least one third of the audience in Tampa were FreedomWorks members. . . .

"White House press secretary Scott McClellan says it shouldn't be surprising that the administration would work with a group like FreedomWorks, since the goal is to sell the president's plan. 'If they are involved in the issue and understand what's at stake, that's what we're looking for,' he says. 'We're looking for real-life examples.' "

Here's the FreedomWorks Web site, where the group's leader, Matt Kibbe, enthuses about their accomplishments: "Donning pro-reform stickers and t-shirts, activists from North Carolina boarded a charter bus to travel to Washington, forming part of an 80 person FreedomWorks contingent at the event. Even better, two FreedomWorks members discussed Social Security reform on stage with President Bush! . . .

"FreedomWorks' presence was not limited to Washington, D.C. As the President tours the nation, FreedomWorks is there! . . . At every turn in the President's schedule, FreedomWorks members were there to enthusiastically cheer President Bush and his plan to save Social Security."

State of the Campaign

Judy Keen and Andrea Stone write in USA Today: "Defying signs of trouble for his plan to overhaul Social Security, President Bush is pushing ahead with aggressive, under-the-radar courtship of congressional Republicans and Democrats, even as he conducts a high-profile marketing blitz."

Kenneth T. Walsh writes in U.S. News: "His current battle to overhaul Social Security is taking on all the aspects of another national plebiscite, with its customary grass-roots hoo-ha, media sniping, and edgy TV ads. It's standard fare, Lord knows. But Bush's problem is that so far, it just doesn't seem to be working. . . .

"In response, Bush is pushing harder than ever. He privately told congressional leaders that he has just begun to fight and will 'go all-out' in coming weeks. . . . To that end, White House strategists have mapped out what they call a '60 events in 60 days plan,' which continues this week with Bush appearances in Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Tennessee. In reality, the campaign will be a lot more extensive than that, U.S. News has learned; White House strategists want to retain some element of surprise. Bush's private schedule has him visiting at least 13 states this month."

John F. Dickerson and Perry Bacon write in Time Magazine: "Throughout his career, critics have moaned fiery doom scenarios and Bush has regularly proven them wrong. . . .

"But maybe it is different this time. While White House aides rely on the steady-as-she-goes Bush patience, the situation is getting worse. Even the Bush team's sure-footed friends are getting nervous, and the president's own steady and deliberate efforts seem not to be helping his cause."

Newsweek's Eleanor Clift says on MSBNC: "I think they have such confidence in their ability to sell the public on anything, that the White House has not given up." But, she says, "The president has a bit of a credibility issue -- a credibility problem on this issue."

And, she notes, "if he does not get a major accomplishment, like Social Security overhaul, he will be remembered, in his domestic agenda, chiefly for the debt that he has left behind."

Middle East Watch

But how about that international agenda?

Tyler Marshall writes in the Los Angeles Times: "A dramatic string of positive developments in the Middle East in recent weeks appears to have deflated, at least for now, fierce congressional criticism of the Bush administration's conduct of the war in Iraq."

Here's Bush in his radio address over the weekend: "In the short time since I returned from my trip to Europe, the world has witnessed remarkable developments in the Middle East. . . .

"The trend is clear: In the Middle East and throughout the world, freedom is on the march. The road ahead will not be easy, and progress will sometimes be slow. But America, Europe and our Arab partners must all continue the hard work of defeating terrorism and supporting democratic reforms."

And AFP reports: "Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will visit Washington in mid-April for talks with US President George W. Bush, amid efforts to kick start the Middle East peace process."

Torture Watch

Douglas Jehl and David Johston write in the New York Times: "The Bush administration's secret program to transfer suspected terrorists to foreign countries for interrogation has been carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency under broad authority that has allowed it to act without case-by-case approval from the White House or the State or Justice Departments, according to current and former government officials.

"The unusually expansive authority for the C.I.A. to operate independently was provided by the White House under a still-classified directive signed by President Bush within days of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the officials said."

Today's Calendar

It's tag-along-with-the first-lady day for the president today. After meeting with the king and queen of Norway, the first couple flies to Pittsburgh for a visit to the Providence Family Support Center and a joint speaking engagement on at-risk youth at a community college.

Bush and the Press

Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler writes this weekend: "Last Sunday's column about declining circulation and other challenges that newspapers face elicited more than 75 e-mails, letters and phone calls. . . .

"Some of these observations are more useful and relevant than others. For me, the issue at the top of the list is whether the press has indeed been too timid in probing and challenging an administration that is, in contrast, perhaps the most skilled in modern times at diminishing and closing off many of the so-called mainstream media."

New York Times columnist Frank Rich writes that Hunter S. Thompson would have been shocked by what's going on now: " 'The death of Thompson represents the passing from the Age of Gonzo to the Age of Gannon,' wrote Russell Cobb in a column in The Daily Texan at the University of Texas. As he argues, today's White House press corps is less likely to be invaded by maverick talents like a drug-addled reporter from a renegade start-up magazine than by a paid propagandist like Jeff Gannon, a fake reporter for a fake news organization (Talon News) run by a bona fide Texas Republican operative who was a delegate to the 2000 Bush convention."

Michael Tackett writes in the Chicago Tribune about Mindy and Katie, the two faux news talk hosts on the Republican National Committee Web site.

"It would be easy enough to dismiss the Mindy and Katie show as a cheeky caricature if it weren't so in sync with the Bush administration's overall efforts to control the flow of information."

Blogger in the White House

Garrett M. Graff, who writes a new media-gossip blog called Fishbowl D.C., is apparently the first self-identified blogger to get a daily pass into the White House briefing room.

Katharine Q. Seelye notes the "signal moment for bloggers" in the New York Times: "A White House spokesman said yesterday that he believed Mr. Graff was the first blogger to be given credentials."

Graff was getting nowhere until the traditional media joined in, he told Seelye. "'USA Today started making calls on Thursday. CNN mentioned it on Inside Politics, and Ron Hutcheson, president of the White House Correspondents Association, raised the issue with the White House Press Office,' he said. 'I think a combination of all of that made the White House pay attention and decide to let me in.'"

Seelye writes: "Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, said he had met with the White House Correspondents Association and they had decided to let Mr. Graff in. 'It is the press corps' briefing room and if there are any new lines to be drawn, it should be done by their association,' he said."

(Translation: If this goes wrong, it's the press corps' fault.)

I couldn't help but notice that the college kids who get day passes to cover the morning gaggle for the Talk Radio News Service Web site actually beat Graff to the post this morning.

And to those of us who have experienced the boredom and lack of responsiveness that is the hallmark of the modern briefing room experience, Graff's eagerness to get in is, well, cute.

But who knows? Maybe a new outlook is just what the place needs. Welcome, Garrett.

© 2005