- President Bush waves to the crowd at the end of his Conversation on Strengthening Social Security, March 21 in Aurora. The president took his plans for reform to an estimated 1,200 invited guests.
President Bush's Colorado "town hall meeting" about Social Security was pretty much a dog and pony show. At least that's how people like Della Valk see the president's national tour to pitch his plan to privatize Social Security.
"You had to be invited," said 73-year-old Valk, a member of the Austin Bluffs chapter of AARP. "It was like Bush was preaching to the faithful."
During the meeting last week, Bush told the 1,200 Coloradans gathered in Aurora that they were part of a "dialogue and discussion" about Social Security. He highlighted his reasons why the system should be privatized. His lighthearted visit was peppered with applause and laughter, which are recorded as part of the White House's official transcript.
Democrats in Colorado weren't convinced. Congresswoman Diana DeGette of Denver and others held their own meetings to respond to Bush's claim that Social Security is failing and in need of reform.
Josh Freed, a spokesman for DeGette, said Bush's meetings are calculated to minimize controversial talk from people who question privatizing Social Security. Instead, Bush rallied among apparent supporters, he said.
"The president wants to make sure we get his message," Freed said. "They are creating situations where he can remain as scripted as possible."
Freed's criticism has been echoed elsewhere during Bush's road trip.
Allen Abney, a regional spokesman for the White House, denied that the town hall meetings are scripted. Yet he conceded that many people got the impression the event was by invitation only.
He attributed the mix-up to an e-mail distributed by Rep. Bob Beauprez to his own supporters. Beauprez, a Republican, was the sole distributor of tickets to the Bush event.
Democrats say such distribution was a partisan move that left opposing views sidelined, as many of those who heard about tickets were likely already Bush supporters.
Rafael Noboa, an Army sergeant and chairman of the El Paso County Young Democrats, was disappointed by the way Bush conducted the dialogue. He worries that $1 trillion to $2 trillion would be needed to overhaul Social Security for privatization, describing it as a "baby tax" that would reduce benefits for future generations.
"As I see it, this stands to become one of the biggest goldmines of corruption for investment corporations," he said. "What do politicians know about investing?"
If nothing is done by 2041 -- when people in their mid-20s begin to retire -- the system will pay out 30 percent less in benefits than it does now.
Bush has sought to allay the concerns of the elderly, saying thechanges would apply only to people who are now 55 years old or younger.
"I want the people who depend upon Social Security to understand you're going to get your check," Bush said at the meeting in Aurora.
But that sounds like a kind of political bribery to Valk.
"In my generation, you thought of the youth -- the people who came after you," she said. "You didn't just think of yourself."
She can't see why there's such a rush to tinker with the security net that Americans have come to rely upon since the Great Depression. There are still 13 years to go before Social Security pays out more than it takes in, she noted.
"Why rush?" she said. "Why not talk about it?"
-- Michael de Yoanna