WASHINGTON -- Despite some of the most atrocious reporting on any national public policy debate in history, public opinion stands strongly in favor of Social Security reform that includes personal retirement accounts. Curiously, the results of a poll released last week that had nothing whatever to do with Social Security may have a bigger effect than any of the others on the current national debate.
According to the Gallup survey, President George W. Bush's overall favorability rating stands at 52%, which is consistent with his numbers over the past four years (save for his post-9/11 bump into the stratosphere). Meanwhile, favorability for Congress rests at an abysmal 37%, its lowest rating since 1999, the year after the impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton. This data comes as President Bush is locked in the fight of his life on Social Security against obstreperous congressional Democrats and pusillanimous congressional Republicans.
Heretofore, the president has taken an "all options on the table" approach, urging members from both parties to join the dialogue and share their ideas. The approach hasn't gotten President Bush very far. Most Democrats have remained unwilling to join the discussion. And many Republicans have been less than helpful. For example, last week Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) called personal retirement accounts "a sideshow."
"I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it," President Bush declared after his successful re-election. Now may be the time.
ONE OPTION THE WHITE HOUSE might take is to shame an unpopular Congress into doing what it otherwise demonstrates an unwillingness to do. A Congress with a 37% approval rating has no political capital to compete with a president who cannot run for re-election and therefore has little to lose.
Moreover, Congress is an easy body to ridicule. It is mostly faceless. The few names and faces that do emerge from the crowd often do so because of scandal. Average Americans know little about how it conducts its business. And, as the Gallup poll shows, it enjoys little public enthusiasm.
It is almost inevitable that the president and Congress will come to blows, anyway. The last two years of our last two- term presidents (Reagan and Clinton) were wildly disruptive. It's almost as if the players in Washington feel like time is running out on their window to settle old scores. And so President Reagan was distracted with Iran-Contra. And President Clinton was impeached.
Nonetheless, it would be difficult for President Bush to distance himself from and hammer away at a congressional Republican majority he, more than anyone else, helped to create. Which is why it is so fortuitous for him that Congress struck the first blow. Last week the U.S. Senate passed a budget bill that rejected President Bush's call for curbs in Medicaid spending. The move was widely reported as a throwing down of gauntlets by Congress.
Now it appears that presidential partisans are fighting back. According to Robert Novak, "Analysts at the Republican National Committee (RNC) have sent this warning to the House of Representatives: the party is in danger of losing 25 seats in the 2006 election and, therefore, of losing control of the House for the first time since the 1994 election." Given the fact that in the first two months of the year, Ken Mehlman's RNC has out-raised Howard Dean's DNC by $21 million to $9 million, this RNC memo reads more like a threat than a "heads up," no?
A NEW DEPARTURE FOR THE White House in its Social Security campaign might be to begin attacking Congress as a do-nothing body populated by self-interested career politicians who are, in real time, shirking their responsibilities. President Bush could easily convince Americans that Congress has its priorities out-of-whack. Example? While half of Congress refuses even to admit Social Security faces financial problems, they wasted the nation's time last week obsessing about Jose Canseco's book and steroids in baseball.
One high-level Capitol Hill staffer, whose boss vocally supports personal retirement accounts, agrees. "Most of the members [of Congress] have found the carrot unappetizing," he told me on the condition of anonymity. "The White House should see how they like the stick."
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