Politics & Policy

Winning Numbers?

What the Social Security numbers say.

“Barely a third of the public approves of the way President Bush is dealing with Social Security,” writes the Washington Post’s Richard Morin, “and a majority says the more they hear about Bush’s plan to reform the giant retirement system, the less they like it, according to a new Washington Post/ABC News poll.”

Yet inside the same Post poll, there is news that 56 percent of those surveyed say they would support “a plan in which people who chose to could invest some of their Social Security contributions in the stock market,” which is the centerpiece of the president’s still-to-be-unveiled Social Security proposal. Forty-one percent say they would oppose such a plan, while three percent have no opinion.

The 56-percent support figure–60 percent and higher among respondents under 50 years of age–is the highest level of support on that question in the last six Post polls going back before the 2000 election. The 41-percent figure is the lowest level of opposition in the last six Post polls going back before the 2000 election.

The Post also found that 71 percent of those polled believe that, if changes are not made, the Social Security system “is heading for a crisis down the road”–a perception that the president’s advisers call a “precondition to authentic reform.”

Thus, the poll indicates that solid majorities of those surveyed a) accept the president’s underlying rationale for reform, and b) support his main proposal for that reform. Yet the Post’s reporting of its results–and indeed the generally accepted wisdom on the Social Security debate–clearly suggests that the president is losing (the front-page headline on today’s Post is “Skepticism of Bush’s Social Security Plan is Growing”). What is going on?

The Social Security debate seems increasingly to be taking place on two tracks–some might say in parallel universes–in which much of the political class focuses on some aspects of polling data, in order to declare the president’s proposal dead, or nearly dead, and the White House focuses on other aspects of polling data to draw the conclusion that the president is making progress.

“What people have been doing is judging Bush on things he hasn’t been doing,” says the Republican pollster David Winston. “Bush has just wanted to establish that there is a serious problem with Social Security, and he’s done that. He hasn’t really been trying to engage, the ‘what’s the best solution’ question, although I think you’re seeing him enter that phase now. But they want to judge him on how well people like his plan, which doesn’t yet exist.”

That judgment leads to the assumption that the president is faltering. While that might ultimately prove correct, at the moment it seems safe to say that the president’s position is as valid as that of his critics. For example, while the Post’s print-edition story on its poll began, “Three months after President Bush launched his drive to restructure Social Security by creating private investment accounts, public support for his program remains weak,” it might just as accurately have begun, “Three months after Democratic leaders launched their drive to stop President Bush’s plan to restructure Social Security by creating private investment accounts, public support for those accounts has risen to its highest level in four years.” Which interpretation more accurately describes what is going on?

Some of the problem involves the questions asked by the pollsters. The Post poll’s lead-off question on Social Security, “Do you approve or disapprove of the way Bush is handling Social Security,” while perfectly valid, suggests a context of a presidential plan. People don’t have a plan to judge, so they express skepticism. Also, the question seems likely to tap a more general public sentiment on which party, Republicans or Democrats, are best able to handle Social Security, a category in which Democrats have had a long-time (but shrinking) lead. Therefore, the news looks bad for Bush.

In addition, in the Post poll, even though the story’s lead sentence concerned private accounts, the actual questions about Social Security began with a series of queries concerning measures to ensure the solvency of the system. “I’m going to mention changes some leaders have proposed for Social Security,” the Post pollsters told respondents. “Please tell me if you support or oppose each one.” What followed were five options: 1) “Increasing the Social Security tax rate;” 2) “Collecting Social Security taxes on all the money a worker earns;” 3) “Raising the retirement age;” 4) “Further reducing the benefits paid to people who retire early;” and 5) “Reducing guaranteed benefits for future retirees.” Not surprisingly, most were unpopular. Only then did Post pollsters ask respondents whether they would support a proposal for personal accounts. When viewed, overall, the picture appeared to be quite negative.

And it’s not just the Post. A recent New York Times poll also asked questions in a way that seemed to invite the public to judge the president on an issue he has not yet engaged. In addition, the Times poll seemed designed to elicit expressions of doubt from respondents. For example, it asked, “Do you have confidence in George W. Bush’s ability to make the right decisions about Social Security, or are you uneasy about his approach?” (63 percent of those surveyed declared themselves uneasy.)

Compare that question to the Times poll’s questions about gay marriage, in which the paper’s pollsters asked respondents, “Which comes closest to your view? Gay couples should be allowed to legally marry OR gay couples should be allowed to form civil unions but not legally marry OR there should be no legal recognition of a gay couples’ relationship?” The Times then asked “Which party comes closer to sharing your view on the legal recognition of gay couples, the Democratic party or the Republican party?”

The blogger Mickey Kaus has pointed out that if the Times had asked its gay marriage question like it asked its Social Security question, it might have asked, “Do you have confidence in the Democratic Party’s ability to make the right decisions about the legal status of gay couples, or are you uneasy about its approach?” Such a question might have led to a significant number of people expressing uneasiness on the issue–because they had been invited to say just that.

Nevertheless, on the question of Social Security, the Times, like the Post, found substantial belief that the public supports some sort of action in the near future. For example, 68 percent of respondents told the Times that they believed the Social Security system was either in crisis or in serious trouble. And then 55 percent said that the system’s problems are so serious that they must be fixed right now.

That sort of feeling is exactly what the White House wants to hear. It’s not making it into the headlines, or the lead sentences, or sometimes even the entire stories, in the newspapers and network accounts of the Social Security battle. But it is going on, and the White House will be counting on it in the next few months.


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