President Bush has spent a good part of the last two months trying to accomplish three tasks on Social Security: Convince more people it's in a crisis, move it up as a priority and persuade the public that he's the guy to deal with it.
He's been having real trouble on all three.
While most Americans say the system is in crisis or has major problems, their numbers have not grown from the late 1990s. Neither do any more people give Social Security a high priority for the president and Congress to address. As far as Bush's own ratings, the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, which was completed on April 24, finds that his approval rating on handling Social Security has hit a career low. He trails the Democrats by a record margin in trust to handle it, and for the first time, support for the centerpiece of his approach -- private accounts - has fallen below 50 percent.
The White House has said the president, approaching the end of his 60-day push for Social Security reform, will declare it "a success" based on the notion that it has increased public focus on the problems facing the government benefit program.
Yet polling data indicate that the public's focus and level of alarm haven't changed much at all.
Most Americans do say the program has major problems or is in a crisis -- but the number who say so is at best the same now as it was in polls dating back more than six years. In a December 1998 Gallup poll, 15 percent said the system was in a crisis and 55 percent said it had major problems. In a Quinnipiac poll that repeated the same question last month, the numbers were 15 percent and 53 percent -- essentially no change.
Other data don't look any better for the administration's efforts. A Washington Post question, worded differently, has 26 percent saying the system is in crisis -- but that's actually down from its peak, 36 percent in March 1997.
Many more people in ABC/Washington Post polling -- 71 percent -- say the system faces a crisis "down the road." But that underscores one of the problems Bush is having: Concerns about Social Security are rooted in apprehension about the future, rather than in discontent with current conditions -- and apprehension is a much weaker force for change. It's the same challenge that did in Bill Clinton's attempt at health care reform more than a decade ago.
The data also don't show a change in priorities. In a Gallup poll back in January 2001, 37 percent called it "extremely important" for the president and Congress to address Social Security. In a Gallup poll early this month, it was precisely the same, 37 percent. Dealing with terrorism (47 percent "extremely important"), health care (46 percent), gasoline prices (44 percent) and the economy (closer, at 41 percent) all were higher on the public's agenda.
This week's ABC/Washington Post poll went at it another way, testing the single most important issue for Bush and Congress to handle. Eleven percent cited Social Security; 88 percent picked something else (led by the economy, 32 percent, and Iraq, 22 percent).
How's Bush Doing?
As for the president himself, 31 percent of Americans in the ABC/Washington Post poll approve of his work on Social Security, while 64 percent disapprove -- a 12-point boost in disapproval since December. (Early this month, Bush's approve-disapprove score on Social Security was 35 percent to 57 percent in a Gallup poll, and 35 percent to 59 percent in one by AP/Ipsos.)
Fifty percent of Americans in the ABC/Washington Post poll said they trust the Democrats in Congress more than Bush to handle Social Security, a number that's held steady in polls since mid-2001. But just 32 percent said they trust Bush more -- down 11 points from his best, two years ago.
Perhaps most troubling for the White House is a drop in support for the centerpiece of Bush's vision, a stock-market investment option for Social Security contributions. Back when the market still was flying high, 64 percent of Americans liked the idea. That fell sharply after the 2000-01 crash, then stabilized, but now has fallen again.
Indeed for the first time in polls dating to 2000, a bare majority, 51 percent, now opposes a stock-market option for Social Security contributions. Support for the idea, at 45 percent, has dropped by 11 points since last month -- precisely as Bush has tried to sell it.