Social Security: Looking Back, Looking Ahead
In his press conference last week, President Bush indicated that he would push ahead with Social Security reform. The polling evidence thus far suggests he has much work to do.
Bush’s ratings on the issue are among the lowest of his presidency: In a Gallup poll taken April 29-May 1, only 35 percent approved of his handling of Social Security, while 58 percent disapproved. In addition, most polls show declining support for personal accounts.
[IMGCAP(1)] There appear to be at least three reasons:
1. Public wariness of big changes. All of the questions asked by pollsters about personal accounts between 1995 and late 2004 were hypothetical. The idea of personal accounts sounded appealing, especially when the market was doing well. Once the abstraction became real, people began to think more seriously, and more critically, about change.
An early-January ABC News/Washington Post poll illustrates this phenomenon. When asked whether they felt “mostly hopeful” or “mostly fearful” about how the administration might deal with a handful of policy areas, people were more fearful about how the president would handle Social Security than about how he would handle the environment, same-sex marriage, Supreme Court nominations and the economy.
2. People’s views of their own retirement prospects. Most people don’t think they will get what they are due from Social Security when they retire (and many young people don’t think they will get anything at all) — yet most expect they will receive something. Moreover, most nonretired adults don’t expect Social Security to be a major source of their retirement income. Both dampen urgency.
Interestingly, the president has convinced most Americans that the system will have serious problems in the future. This may explain one of the paradoxes in recent polls. Americans tell pollsters that Social Security is not in crisis. But at the same time, in two recent polls — Gallup and Fox News/Opinion Dynamics — they tell them that Congress is not acting swiftly enough.
3. Solid Democratic opposition. In a closely divided country with strong partisan divisions, Democratic leadership solidarity pulled nearly all rank-and-file Democrats (and many independents) into opposition.
The bottom line is that Bush has lost ground on the issue, though none of the polls shows the Democrats gaining any, either. Indeed, the new Gallup poll shows people equally worried that the Republicans will go too far here (61 percent) and that the Democrats will not go far enough (62 percent).
Other Social Security Findings. An ABC News/Washington Post poll taken April 21-24 showed support for personal accounts dropping to its lowest point since May 2000, when the question was first asked. Forty-five percent supported “a plan in which people who chose to could invest some of their Social Security contributions in the stock market.” The poll found 51 percent opposed.
A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll conducted April 25-26 showed that 79 percent believed “people under age 55 should have the right to choose between keeping all of their [Social Security] contributions in the current system and investing a portion of their contributions.” As we have seen in polls in other areas (abortion, euthanasia, smoking), personal choice is a very popular notion.
In the next question in the poll, however, a smaller proportion, 53 percent, said that based on what they knew about the Social Security personal investment proposal, they would want the choice to invest a portion of their Social Security contributions in stocks or mutual funds. In that poll, 37 percent were opposed.
The way the ABC/Post and Fox News/Opinion Dynamics questions were framed, and the questions that were asked before the personal accounts question, probably explain the differences in responses. Public opinion in this area, like many others, is complex.
If the 2004 Election Were Rerun … Bush would beat Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) 46 percent to 41 percent, according to an April 15-19 Zogby International poll.
In the new Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, 52 percent had a generally favorable opinion of Bush, while 43 percent were unfavorable. Former President Bill Clinton’s marks were 53 percent to 40 percent, respectively.
Incidentally, Clinton’s rating has been climbing since 2001. A new Democracy Corps (D) poll showed him beating Bush.
Karlyn Bowman is a resident fellow specializing in public opinion and polls at the American Enterprise Institute.