President Bush began his Social Security rollout immediately after his State of the Union address on February 2. How's it going now? The polls are in agreement: Not well. They all show Bush losing ground.
The public sees a disconnect between Social Security's problem and Bush's proposed solution. The problem is solvency. The president's solution is to divert some Social Security contributions into personal accounts. But the more that people find out about the issue, the more they understand that personal accounts would make the solvency problem worse.
Americans see Social Security as an insurance policy. Any suggestion of reducing guaranteed benefits meets with instant disapproval. People aren't necessarily opposed to personal retirement accounts. They are opposed to cutting guaranteed benefits to pay for them.
In early February, 43 percent of the public said they approved of the way Bush was handling Social Security, according to the Gallup Poll. Now only 35 percent say they do. A majority—56 percent—disapprove. The impression that Bush is losing ground is confirmed by a mid-February Pew Research Center poll, which pegs approval of his handling of Social Security even lower, at 29 percent.
Pew also found a sharp decline in support for a proposal "which would allow younger workers to invest a portion of their Social Security taxes in private retirement accounts, which might include stocks or mutual funds." Support dropped from 70 percent in September 2000, to 58 percent in September 2004, to 54 percent in December, and to 46 percent in February of this year.
The New York Times/CBS News poll asked whether individuals should be allowed to invest part of their Social Security taxes on their own. The portion of respondents who called that a bad idea jumped from 39 percent in January 2002 to 51 percent in February 2005. What if allowing personal accounts meant that guaranteed benefits would be reduced? No way, say 69 percent.
Bush argues that Social Security has to be rescued from an impending crisis. "I'm going to keep saying it all around the country," Bush said in New Jersey last week.
But the public's sense of urgency has actually diminished. In January, nearly half of respondents (49 percent) told Gallup that they thought the government should make major changes in Social Security in the next year or two. By late February, that number had dropped to 38 percent. More and more people seem to agree with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who said, "If we did nothing with Social Security, Social Security would pay 100 percent of benefits for the next 50 years."
The Pew poll reports that, when it comes to Bush's Social Security plan, "awareness fuels opposition." Resistance to Bush's proposal for personal accounts is significantly higher among those who say they've heard a lot about it.
The problem, Republicans insist, is solvency. "What we need to do is, put together a plan that gets us to a strong, sustainable, solvent Social Security system," said Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H.
But Democrats seem to be getting across their message that personal accounts won't solve the problem. Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., explained, "The American people began to understand there's no correlation between fixing Social Security and private accounts.... The private accounts only make Social Security solvency more difficult, not easier."
The Times/CBS News poll asked people what effect they thought personal accounts would have on Social Security's finances. By more than 2-to-1 (45 percent to 19 percent), respondents thought such accounts would worsen the situation.
And Democrats have seized that opening. "If you take privatization off the table, we'll be happy to sit down and talk about the future," Reid said in a challenge to Bush.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, now contends that all the talk about personal accounts is "detracting" from the debate over how to keep the system solvent. "Maybe we ought to focus on solvency and bring people to the table just over what do you do for solvency for the next 75 years," he told Iowa reporters.
Bush seemed to make a major concession when he told an audience last week, "Personal accounts [are] an add-on to that which the government is going to pay you. It doesn't replace the Social Security system." Democrats are willing to talk about personal accounts as an "add-on." But a White House spokesman quickly stepped in to deny that the president was talking about an entirely new program separate from Social Security.
Democrats sound confident, even cocky. "This privatization plan is sinking like a rock," Sen. Barbara Boxer of California said. Republicans sound nervous, even pessimistic. "The chances [of personal accounts] are probably not as high as I'd like to believe," said Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
The idea was for Bush to reassure older Americans that Social Security would not change for them and to rally younger workers, who have very little confidence in Social Security, to support his plan. But that's not happening. Older people remain strongly critical of Bush's ideas. And the polls show that he's losing support on this issue among younger people. Within the under-30 crowd, Gallup found, support fell to 30 percent in late February, down 14 points from earlier that month.