March 14, 2005 — -- President Bush's Social Security road show is playing to a tough audience: Not only do most Americans oppose his effort to revamp the retirement system, but nearly six in 10 in a new poll also say that the more they hear about it, the less they like it.
In the midst of a 60-day drive by Bush to build public support for his Social Security initiative, this ABC News/Washington Post poll shows no movement in Bush's direction. Americans oppose his plans by 55 percent to 37 percent, and the intensity of sentiment is against him: Those who are "strongly" opposed outnumber strong supporters by a 2-to-1 margin.
Just 10 percent rate Social Security as the top priority for Bush and Congress, placing it last of five issues tested. Only 35 percent approve of Bush's handling of the issue, a career low. And by a 12-point margin, 49 percent to 37 percent, the public better trusts the Democrats in Congress to handle Social Security, unchanged since Bush began the policy push in mid-January.
The results run counter to the administration's claims that fuller information will turn opinion its way. In fact, opposition to the president's plan is as high among people who feel well-informed about it (half the public) as among the less well-informed. And while opposition is highest and strongest among older Americans -- who wouldn't be affected -- the plan is weakly received down the line. Middle-aged adults oppose it by about a 20-point margin; those under 30, by nine points.
This resistance does not represent denial: Seven in 10 Americans believe the Social Security system is headed for a crisis down the road. But previous polling has found that far fewer think the system is in crisis now, and apprehension about the future is a weaker force for change than discontent with current conditions.
And there is division about the extent of changes needed. About half of Americans, 48 percent, say the system needs major changes to avoid a crisis -- but about as many, 45 percent, either say that minor changes will do, or that no crisis is coming.
A problem for Bush is that his plan isn't popular even among people who see a need for major changes in Social Security. They only divide about evenly on his plans, with 47 percent in favor, 45 percent opposed. Those who don't see a need for major changes, meanwhile, oppose Bush on Social Security by a wide margin.
Best for Bush is that most, 56 percent in this poll, continue to support creation of voluntary personal accounts "in which people who chose to could invest some of their Social Security contributions in the stock market." The trouble is that there is broad opposition to the stick that would drive people to such accounts -- reducing the rate of growth in benefits in the traditional program.
By a nearly 4-to-1 margin, the public -- 75 percent to 20 percent -- opposes "reducing guaranteed benefits for future retirees." Language counts: Opposition drops when the change is more precisely described as one in which "benefits increase at a slower rate." But the public is still opposed, in this formulation by 57 percent to 37 percent.
Other changes are also broadly unpopular. Americans by 2-to-1 oppose increasing the Social Security tax rate, by 2-to-1 oppose raising the retirement age to receive full benefits to 68 from the current 67, and by nearly 2-to-1 oppose further trimming the benefits paid to people who retire early.
Much more popular is the notion of taking more from the better-off. By 56 percent to 40 percent, the public favors eliminating the cap on annual earnings that are subject to Social Security taxes, now $90,000. Interestingly, this is supported by a 20-point margin even in households with total incomes greater than $100,000 a year.
Within any proposals, there are complications that can influence public opinion. Earlier ABC/Post polling has shown that support for personal accounts drops sharply if it means borrowing up to $2 trillion to pay for the transition. Support also is lower if the change is portrayed as "diverting" Social Security money. And there's broad reluctance actually to participate in such accounts. A key reason: Sixty-nine percent in this poll view the stock market as "a risky investment," not a safe one.
There are generational differences on Social Security. Opposition to Bush's plan peaks at 62 percent among senior citizens. Fifty-two percent of seniors not only oppose Bush's plan, but do so strongly -- an extremely high level of intense opposition. However, even among 18- to 29-year-olds, strong opponents outnumber strong supporters by 2-to-1, albeit at much lower levels of intensity, 23 percent to 12 percent.
There is also strong partisanship on this issue: Opposition runs to 83 percent among Democrats and 56 percent among independents, while 74 percent of Republicans back the president's proposals.
On some specific proposals, views transcend partisanship. More than six in 10 Republicans, Democrats and independents alike oppose increasing the Social Security tax rate (something Bush has ruled out). And 55 percent to 58 percent, across party lines, support raising the $90,000 cap on taxable income. Indeed this idea -- which Bush has not ruled out -- wins majority support both from supporters and opponents of his proposals overall.
As noted, at 35 percent, approval of Bush's work on Social Security is at a career low. He more generally remains a 50 percent president: Half of Americans approve of his job performance overall, 48 percent disapprove, about the same as just before his second inauguration, and indeed about the same as it has been on average for the past year. (Slightly more now disapprove strongly than approve strongly, 37 percent to 31 percent.)
More disapprove than approve of his work on the economy as well as on Social Security. His rating on health care has moderated a bit but is hardly strong; 44 percent approve, 48 percent disapprove. The campaign against terrorism -- the issue that won Bush re-election -- remains the cornerstone of his presidency, with a 59 percent to 38 percent approval rating. All these are little changed from an ABC/Post poll in mid-January. (Bush's ratings on Iraq will be the subject of a separate analysis Tuesday.)
No one issue dominates the public's agenda: Asked what Bush and Congress should make their top priority this year, 27 percent cite the economy and jobs, 23 percent Iraq, 17 percent terrorism and 16 percent health care. But, as noted, Social Security ranks a clear last, selected by 10 percent.
It trails these other issues as a priority even among people who say the system is headed for a crisis, as well as among those who say it needs major changes; and it ranks ahead of just one -- health care -- even among those who support Bush's Social Security proposals.
This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone March 10-13 among a random national sample of 1,001 adults. The results have a three-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation were done by TNS of Horsham, Pa.
You can find more ABC News polls in our Poll Vault.