Exploiting a Misconception

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, May 20, 2005; 11:54 AM

President Bush's meticulously stage-managed presentations on Social Security have slowly shifted into a new phase, in which White House aides find misinformed young people to share the stage with the president and assert that Social Security won't be there at all when they retire.

And rather than correcting them on their misconception -- government estimates, after all, say that after 2041 Social Security will still be able to pay at least three-quarters of currently promised benefits without any changes -- Bush congratulates them on their perspicacity.

Bush isn't saying much new at these events, and attention in Washington is currently focused elsewhere.

But as he steadily pivots the focal point of his events from older people to younger, he is increasingly using hand-picked people under 30 as props in a scare campaign.

He's still telling seniors not to listen to all those unspecified people trying to frighten them by saying their benefits are about to be cut.

But he himself is forcefully asserting to young people that for them, when it comes to Social Security, the sky is falling.

Take a look at the transcript of Bush's event yesterday in Milwaukee and in particular his exchanges with the panelists winnowed by the White House from a pool of contestants selected by the local chamber of commerce.

Bobby Kraft, 27, who is president of a local printing and mailing company, told Bush: "Before I got into printing I did have a short stint as an investment advisor. And the first thing I learned getting into the industry and studying all the financial books is that don't count on Social Security to be there. We . . . teach our employees that they need to take advantage of the 401(k) we put in place for them because of the fact, the way the Social Security system is set up, we cannot count on that to be here.

Bush: "Yes, let me stop you. Young guy sitting here in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in front of the President -- don't count on Social Security to be there. A lot of people feeling that way here in America. What I'm telling you is, if we can get the United States Congress to listen to you, we can put a plan in place to make sure Social Security is there. (Applause.)"

Same thing happened a bit later, when Bush spoke to 22-year-old Concordia University senior Christy Paavola.

Bush: "You got any thoughts about Social Security?"

Paavola: "Yes, I don't think it's going to be there when I retire, which is really scary."

Bush: "Interesting, isn't it? They took a survey amongst youngsters. Somebody explained to me, I didn't actually watch -- see the survey, but I heard what the person said. He said, more people are -- that are Christy's age think they're more likely to see a UFO than get a Social Security check. (Laughter.) Pretty funny when you think about the fact that a lot of young people are going to be putting a lot of money into a system that may not be around. So we're sitting here with a senior in college saying, I don't think the system is going to be around."

Is it just a coincidence that so many of the young people sharing the stage with the president are laboring under this particular misconception?

No. As Warren Vieth writes in a break-out Los Angeles Times story today, the White House is specifically looking for such people.

Vieth got a hold of a memo circulated this week by one of the outside organizations that helps provide Bush's supporting cast. For an event next week, the White House turned to Women Impacting Public Policy.

" 'President Bush will be in Rochester, N.Y., for an upcoming event and has called on WIPP for help,' the memo to members stated.

"It went on to describe several types of workers the White House wanted to appear on stage with Bush, starting with a young wage-earner 'who knows that SS could run out before they retire.' . . .

"White House spokesman Trent Duffy declined to discuss WIPP's e-mail to prospective participants in the Rochester forum, which has not been announced. But he said it was not unusual for the White House to work with groups such as WIPP to identify people who can help Bush make the case for restructuring."

Writes Vieth: "Although it is common for advocacy groups and political organizations to spotlight supportive views at public events, the WIPP memo suggests that the White House has provided outside organizations with explicit instructions on the kind of participants it has in mind."

Is Anyone Listening?

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "The obligatory campaign-style signs were hung behind the stage, the familiar hand-selected 'conversation participants' seated next to him. The friendly, invitation-only audience cheered with appropriate enthusiasm. And when President Bush took the microphone, he spun out more or less the same speech he has given dozens of times before.

"On the 78th day of a 60-day roadshow, the president's nationwide Social Security tour, even to some of his own aides, has the feel of a past-its-prime Broadway production that has been held over while other, newer shows steal the spotlight.

"On Capitol Hill, they are talking about filibusters, on Embassy Row about the civilian massacre in Uzbekistan, at the Pentagon about the latest surge in violence in Iraq. But Bush keeps plugging on, pounding home a practiced message on Social Security that polls show so far has not sold the country."

Baker relates a telling fact: a half-empty press charter. "None of the networks sent its regular White House correspondent. USA Today, the Washington Times and other papers that usually cover presidential trips saw no reason to cover this one. Even some White House aides weary of the barnstorming privately roll their eyes and groan at the notion of yet another Social Security trip."

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times that even as Bush continued to push, "Republicans said the White House and Congressional leaders were concerned that the fight over judicial nominees was further endangering any bipartisan deal on the retirement system and other high-profile issues.

In the Audience

John Schmid writes for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "Bush appeared to be speaking to the converted on Thursday. The 450 guests allowed into the museum's atrium received invitations through their membership in the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, the city's main business lobby, or its sister organization, the Young Professionals of Milwaukee.

"In interviews after the president spoke, a number of Milwaukee's young professionals concurred that they don't expect a government-sponsored social safety net to support them when they retire and expressed admiration for initiatives that allow them more leeway in how they save for their own retirement.

"When it comes to government-paid retirement funds, 'I factor zero for my personal planning,' said Rick Fessenbecker, managing director at Northwoods Software Development Inc., a fast-growing technology firm in Brown Deer.

" 'You have a whole generation saying the same thing,' the software executive said."

And yet Greg J. Borowski writes in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that some of the invited guests weren't wowed.

"Among those in the audience was Beth Schuetz, 34, of Mequon, who hoped Bush would talk more about how his plan would be financed. She is part of the Social Security system, receiving disability payments as she fights breast cancer.

" 'It seemed like an infomercial,' she said. 'They all just repeated what he said verbatim.' "

Bush, One on One

Craig Gilbert of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel talked Social Security with Bush during a 25-minute interview as the president flew to yesterday's event.

" 'I readily concede for some this is a very difficult lift,' said Bush from behind his desk aboard Air Force One, during a one-on-one interview with the Journal Sentinel. 'Some would rather the issue not be raised. Some would hope that the president would go away. But that's not going to happen.' . . .

"But the president said he was confident that his persistence, his repetition 'over and over and over again' of the case for personal accounts, and the attention he has focused on Social Security's future financial problems would translate into public pressure on lawmakers to act. . . .

"At another point, Bush was asked whether he thought his election victory in November was an expression of support by voters for his Social Security plans. In a recent interview with the Journal Sentinel, Vice President Dick Cheney said he thought the election was a mandate for personal accounts, an interpretation Democrats have hotly disputed.

"Bush answered a bit differently.

" 'It's hard to break down a specific issue, and an issue in a race in which there was a lot of issues. We had Iraq, we had foreign policy . . . we had values. Social Security was clearly an issue, however,' Bush said. 'I think they voted for me in large part because they knew I would not be afraid to take on a tough issue. In other words, I would not be so political I would say, 'Well, gosh, I really don't want to tackle this,' either for fear of failure or because it might put somebody in an awkward position.' "

Friends, Part I

Before the event, Bush stopped by the offices of the onmilwaukee.com city guide.

As John D. McKinnon of the Wall Street Journal wrote in his pool report: "Those who still mourn the passing of 'Friends' would have taken heart from POTUS's visit to OnMilwaukee.com, a new media business. In a small second-floor meeting room in a storefront building in Milwaukee's east side, half a dozen or so young adults, almost all under 30, gathered on a brown leather sofa and overstuffed chairs. Four coffee cups and an open laptop on a small table completed the 'Central Perk' tableau."

Indeed, here's a White House photo.

Bush offered praise for the business, which is not affiliated with the local newspaper, saying it offers people a new way to get news.

Friends, Part II

David E. Rosenbaum and Edmund L. Andrews write in the New York Times: "Robert C. Pozen, the business executive who developed the theory behind Mr. Bush's plan to trim Social Security benefits in the future, urged the president today to drop his insistence on using a portion of workers' taxes to pay for individual investment accounts."

Poll Watch

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press concludes from its latest poll: "Americans are critical of President Bush's job performance in many policy areas, but negative opinions of his handling of the economy and Iraq are doing the most damage to his overall approval rating, which now stands at 43%. Just 35% approve of the president's handling of the economy, down from 43% in February and 45% in January."

Tell the President Next Time?

Adam Entous writes for Reuters: "Contradicting the White House line, U.S. first lady Laura Bush said on Thursday the president should have been interrupted during a bike ride to be told about a plane scare that sent fighter jets scrambling over Washington and forced her to take cover in a bunker.

" 'I think he should have been interrupted, but I'm not going to second-guess the Secret Service that were with him,' Laura Bush told reporters during her flight to Jordan to start a five-day solo visit to the Middle East. Her plane stopped in Shannon to refuel.

"Asked if Bush had expressed any frustration about not being told sooner, the first lady said, 'No. Not really.'

" 'He did feel like they followed the protocols. The fact is, we got to the bunker, and within two minutes the plane had turned (away) So that was a very short part of his ride, really, before they knew that everything was alright,' she added."

The First Lady's Trip

Agence France Presse reports: "US first lady Laura Bush said she would make the case for women to have more say in decision-making when she gives a speech at the World Economic Forum in Jordan this weekend. . . .

" 'The real purpose of the speech is to talk about how women want the same things that men do,' Laura Bush told Fox News television."

Here's a partial transcript and video of the Fox News interview.

Memo Watch

Douglas Jehl writes in the New York Times: "More than two weeks after its publication in London, a previously secret British government memorandum that reported in July 2002 that President Bush had decided to 'remove Saddam, through military action' is still creating a stir among administration critics. They are portraying it as evidence that Mr. Bush was intent on war with Iraq earlier than the White House has acknowledged."

Jehl provides some important historical context, including this: "Two former Bush administration officials, Richard A. Clarke, the former terrorism adviser, and Paul H. O'Neill, the former treasury secretary, have written books saying that Mr. Bush decided to invade Iraq by the summer of 2002. But the British memorandum, which records the minutes of a meeting of Prime Minister Tony Blair's senior foreign policy advisers, does provide some contemporaneous validation for those accounts, though only through secondhand observations."

Karzai's Visit

Agence France Presse reports: "Afghan President Hamid Karzai heads to the United States in a visit that threatens to be overshadowed by the most violent anti-US protests to rock Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban and new allegations of prisoner abuse by US soldiers. . . .

"And although last week's anti-US protests, which saw hundreds on the streets in cities across Afghanistan, were sparked by a Newsweek report that was later retracted, further allegations Friday threatened to ignite popular anger."

That's a reference to Tim Golden's story in the New York Times today, based on a 2,000-page confidential file of the Army's criminal investigation into the deaths of two Afghan detainees.

"Like a narrative counterpart to the digital images from Abu Ghraib, the Bagram file depicts young, poorly trained soldiers in repeated incidents of abuse. The harsh treatment, which has resulted in criminal charges against seven soldiers, went well beyond the two deaths."

Golden writes that "with President Bush's final determination in February 2002 that the Conventions did not apply to the conflict with Al Qaeda and that Taliban fighters would not be accorded the rights of prisoners of war, the interrogators believed they 'could deviate slightly from the rules,' " said one reservist.

Meanwhile, Jerry Markon writes in The Washington Post: "An American student charged in an al Qaeda plot to kill President Bush was tortured while jailed in Saudi Arabia, according to two doctors who examined Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, his attorney said yesterday in court papers."

Koran Watch

And in the wake of the White House insistence that Newsweek was wrong to suggest that American soldiers defiled the Koran, there are more reports that they did just that.

Carol D. Leonnig writes in The Washington Post: "The International Committee of the Red Cross said yesterday that it repeatedly expressed concern to the U.S. government in 2002 and early 2003 about a series of credible detainee allegations that military guards at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba had mishandled and shown disrespect to the Koran. . . .

"The committee said the U.S. government responded with 'corrective measures' in 2003 and the allegations ceased."

Cam Simpson and Mark Silva broke the story in the Chicago Tribune yesterday.

And James Gordon Meek writes in the New York Daily News: "It wasn't tossed in a toilet, but disrespecting an inmate's Koran got at least one American soldier reprimanded at the Guantanamo prison for terrorists, the Daily News has learned."

Meek writes that "two reliable military sources confirmed the previously undisclosed reprimand at the Camp Delta prison -- contradicting Bush administration denials of any 'credible and specific allegations' about Koran desecration at Gitmo."

Supreme Court Watch

Joseph Curl writes in the Washington Times: "Preparations are already well under way within the White House to fill an expected vacancy on the Supreme Court, with at least one conservative legal organization having submitted its recommendations on who should sit on the nation's top court."

Calvin College Rebellion

Detroit News columnist Laura Berman writes: "The president may have been expecting a warmer welcome from Calvin College than he'll get Saturday.

"He's delivering a commencement speech to 900 graduating students."

Kathleen Gray writes in the Detroit Free Press about protest letters appearing in the local paper.

One letter, signed by one third of the faculty members at the Christian college, asserts:

"As Christians we are called to be peacemakers, slow to anger, and unwilling to accept the killing of innocents. We believe your administration has launched an unjust and unjustified war in Iraq. . . .

"As Christians we are called to actions characterized by love, gentleness and concern for the most vulnerable among us. We believe that your administration has fostered intolerance and divisiveness and has often failed to listen to those with whom it disagrees."

Gray writes that "about 100 students are expected to adorn their graduation gowns with armbands and buttons bearing the slogan: 'God is not a Republican or Democrat.' "

But any protests when Bush is there are expected to be respectful. And a lot of members of the Calvin community are delighted he's coming.

Jennifer Ackerman-Haywood writes for the Grand Rapids Press: "The last-minute ticket frenzy is on at Calvin College, with students scrambling for access to Saturday's graduation where President George W. Bush is to deliver the commencement address."

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