Poll: Bush's Social Security Plan is Tough Sell

ByABC News
March 14, 2005, 3:56 PM

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.