In a January strategy memo, White House aide Peter Wehner wrote that the battle over Social Security had to begin with the president convincing Americans that there really is a problem–Wehner did not use the word “crisis,” but he meant an urgent, serious problem–with the nation’s retirement system.. “We need to establish in the public mind a key fiscal fact: right now we are on an unsustainable course,” Wehner wrote. “That reality needs to be seared into the public consciousness; it is the pre-condition to authentic reform.”
Now, two months later, it appears the White House is making significant progress toward that goal. The latest indication comes in a new New York Times/CBS poll which–although it has been interpreted as providing overwhelmingly bad news for the president–provides solid evidence that the public is increasingly viewing Social Security as a problem that requires action.
Reporting the poll’s results, the Times said the survey showed that Americans “are increasingly resistant to [the president’s] proposal to revamp Social Security and say they are uneasy with Mr. Bush’s ability to make the right decisions about the retirement program.” The paper also reported that, “The poll underscores just how little headway Mr. Bush has made in his effort to build popular support as his proposal for overhauling Social Security struggles to gain footing in Congress.”
Yet deep inside the poll are numbers that are surely encouraging to the White House. Pollsters asked a series of questions about whether people believe that there is a serious problem with the Social Security system, and the results indicate that the strategy outlined by Wehner in January is working.
For example, the Times/CBS asked, “Which of the following do you think best describes the financial situation of Social Security today–1) It is in crisis. 2) It is in serious trouble but not a crisis. 3) It is in some trouble, or 4) It is not really in trouble at all.”
Thirty-seven percent said the system is in a crisis, and another 31 percent said it is in serious trouble–a total of 68 percent who believe that there is a serious problem with Social Security. Twenty-four percent said the system is in some trouble, and just four percent said the system is not really in trouble at all.
Then the Times and CBS asked, “From what you know, are the problems with the Social Security system: 1) So serious they must be fixed right now; OR 2) Serious, but do not need to be fixed for another ten or fifteen years; OR 3) Not very serious at all.”
Fifty-five percent of those who responded said the problems are so serious they must be fixed right now. Thirty-five percent said the problem must be fixed in ten or fifteen years. Just seven percent said the problem is not very serious at all.
Answers to another question, not specifically about Social Security, also suggest White House progress. The Times and CBS asked, as they do in virtually every poll, “What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?” Last November, one percent of those polled answered Social Security. In January it was three percent. In the latest poll, it is five percent. While that might not seem like a large number, it is the same number as those who cited health care as the country’s most important problem, and more than cited the budget deficit, education, or moral values.
By any interpretation, the numbers seem to indicate that the White House is making progress in its goal to “sear” the problems of Social Security “into the public consciousness,” to use Wehner’s words. And that progress might be even more significant than it seems. Critics have suggested that the Times/CBS survey overcounted Democrats. If that is true, then the numbers are more impressive than they appear. And even if it is not, the results suggest that a large number of people who did not vote for George W. Bush nevertheless believe that action needs to be taken on Social Security.
The numbers also suggest that the process of reforming Social Security will be a longer haul than many of the president’s critics–and some of his allies–expect. The White House has spent two months, and will spend still more time, establishing what Wehner called the “precondition to authentic reform.” Only when that phase is finished will the substantive work even begin.