washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Independents and Young People (Not to Mention the General Public) Display Little Enthusiasm for Bush’s Social Security Plan

Well, President Bush threw down the gauntlet in his Tuesday State of the Union speech on his plan to privatize Social Security. Ready or not, here he comes!
So far, response to his initiative has been underwhelming and members of his own party are edging away from it, even as Democrats continue to hold firm against it. A good part of the reason may be seen in recent polls which continue to show the proposal performing weakly once its basic provisions are made clear. Republican politicians are understandably nervous about being associated with a loser and Democratic politicians see little reason to defect when public opinion clearly backs them.
Three new polls provide more evidence of just how difficult the public opinion climate is for Bush. The first is a Westhill Partners poll released by The Hotline this week. Among the key findings are the following:
1. Bush receives a 34 percent approval rating on handling Social Security, with 52 percent disapproval. And among independents, his rating is markedly worse: a mere 23 percent approval and 59 percent disapproval.
2. A question on the seriousness of the problems with Social Security yields just 18 percent saying the system needs to be completely rebuilt (12 percent among independents), with 33 percent saying major changes are needed and 43 percent calling for only minor changes.
3. By 61-29 (66-21 among independents), voters say that keeping Social Security as a program with a guaranteed monthly benefit is more important than letting younger workers decide for themselves how some of their Social Security contributions are invested, with varying benefit levels depending on the success of their investments.
4. By 61-24 (66-16 among independents), voters say Bush’s November election victory does not mean the American people support his ideas on Social Security.
5. By 54-42 (61-33 among independents), voters say they would not be likely to invest a portion of their Social Security taxes in the stock market if they were allowed to do so.
6. By 50-33 (53-25 among independents), voters say they “disapprove of proposals to incorporate personal accounts into the Social Security program”. (Interestingly, despite the Republicans’ now-religious belief that saying “personal accounts” rather than “private accounts” somehow makes these accounts much more attractive, the half-sample that was asked this same question with private accounts substituted for personal accounts actually had a slightly less disapproving reaction.)
The second poll showing tough sledding for Bush on Social Security was conducted by Roper Public Affairs for AARP, Rock the Vote and the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. The poll is particularly useful for showing how soft support for private accounts is among younger adults (18-39). When supporters of private accounts (based on a question that simply describes the accounts and mentions none of the associated costs and tradeoffs) were asked a series of followups, here is what the poll found.
1. Sixty-one percent of the public (53 percent of younger adults) oppose such accounts if stock market fluctuations could result in decreased money in retirement.
2. Sixty-three percent of the public (57 percent of younger adults) oppose such accounts if they mean a lower guaranteed benefit in retirement.
3. Sixty-eight percent of the public (63 percent of younger adults) oppose such accounts mean massive new federal debt in order to pay current benefits.
4. And 69 percent of the public (65 percent of younger adults) oppose private accounts if they would result in cuts for guaranteed benefits for everyone, not just people who choose to have such an account.
5. In addition, 53 percent of younger adults believe private accounts paid for by Social Security money will hurt Social Security, not help it and 75 percent of younger adults agree both that Social Security should be protected as a guaranteed benefit, not privatized and that it isn’t fair to saddle our children with additional Social Security debt by taking money out of Social Security for private accounts.
The final poll with bad news for the Bush plan is the new Newsweek poll, conducted entirely after Bush’s SOTU address. Here are some of the key findings:
1. Just 12 percent of the public would support cutting Social Security benefits to retirees to keep Social Security financially solvent.
2. In a completely unaided question, that simply refers to “the changes to Social Security proposed by the President”, 36 percent say they oppose these changes, compared to 26 percent who favor them.
3. By 44-40, the public doesn’t think allowing one-third of the Social Security payroll tax to be diverted into individual savings accounts will result in a better deal for retirees than the current system.
No doubt about it, Bush has quite a sales job on his hands. Unfortunately for him, the more details of his plan that come out, the more the public seems likely to be reminded of what they don’t like about it. In other words, as the data above show, his plan is only popular on the level of vague generality–anything specific and the public starts bailing out. That’s a tough dynamic for a president–any president–to overcome.