Pre-Inauguration Blues (Continued)
Yesterday, I talked about the first of four recent polls that indicate the public has a serious case of the pre-inauguration blues. Here are some findings from the other three polls.
2. The second poll to be released was the Time Magazine/SRBI poll, which focused particularly on the issue of Social Security. To begin with, the poll finds that public divided both on whether there truly is a Social Security crisis (45 percent say there is; 44 percent say that's just a scare tactic to help Bush push through his plan) and on whether they favor (44 percent) or oppose (47 percent) the general idea of allowing people to invest part of their Social Security payroll tax in stocks and bonds.
Note that the latter finding was before respondents were informed of any possible costs of the plan. Opposition moved to 48-41 if Bush's plan included a drop in "guaranteed money from Social Security". And when informed that Bush's plan would include government borrowing of $1-2 billion over 10 years, in addition to the private accounts and reduction in guanteed benefit, opposition to his plan soared to 69-21.
In perhaps the most intriguing result of the survey, by a healthy 23 points (56-33), people believe they personally would do better sticking with the current system "which pays benefits regardless of the performance of stocks and bonds" rather than "investing part of your Social Security payroll tax in stocks and bonds".
The poll also finds the public favors a series of alternative ways to fix the Social Security system's problem, some by wide margins. By 48-41, they favor raising the cap on income that is eligible for Social Security taxation; by 58-38, they favor reducing Social Security benefits for wealthy people; by 69-28, they favor providing more incentives for people to work beyond the ages of 62 and 65; and by a very impressive 73-19 margin, they favor allowing people to invest more in tax-deferred retirement accounts outside of Social Security.
The latter result strongly suggests that Congressional Democrats could strengthen their hands against Bush's Social Security privatization push by focusing attention on a plan to provide private accounts outside of Social Security, such as the one advocated by Gene Sperling of the Center for American Progress.
President Bush will begin his second term in office without a clear mandate to lead the nation, with strong disapproval of his policies in Iraq and with the public both hopeful and dubious about his leadership on the issues that will dominate his agenda, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.
On the eve of Thursday's presidential inaugural ceremonies, the survey found few signs that the country has begun to come together since Bush defeated Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) two months ago. The president has claimed a mandate from the election, but the poll found as much division today as four years ago over the question of whether Bush or Democrats in Congress should set the direction for the country.
Fewer than half of those interviewed -- 45 percent -- said they preferred that the country go in the direction that Bush wanted to lead it, whereas 39 percent said Democrats should lead the way. During the first months of his presidency, after the bitterly disputed 2000 election, Americans said they preferred Bush to take the lead by 46 percent to 36 percent.
Bush's approval ratings, both overall and in particular areas, are pretty close to the generally poor Gallup ratings I commented on in my post of January 12. But it's worth noting that in the currently hot areas of Iraq (40 percent) and Social Security (38 percent) his ratings are actually 2-3 points lower than in that earlier Gallup poll and tied for the lowest he has ever received on these issues in the WP/ABC poll.
Other findings on Iraq underscore the president's difficulties in that area. By 55-44, the public now thinks the war with Iraq wasn't worth fighting, the second most negative reading on this question (the most negative was in the previous WP/ABC poll). On whether the war with Iraq has contributed to the long-term security of the US--a question that has always tended to produce relatively positive responses (compared to, for example, asking whether the Iraq war has made us safer from terrorist attacks)--the public gives its most negative response yet, with almost as many saying the Iraq war hasn't contributed to long-term security (47 percent) as say it has (50 percent).
On Social Security, the public not only gives him a very approval rating (noted above), but also says it trusts Congressional Democrats (50 percent) more than Bush (37 percent) to handle the issue. And young people (18-30), in particular, have little confidence in Bush on Social Security: just 33 percent approve of the way he is handling the issue, compared to 60 percent who disapprove, and by 59-32 they say they trust Congressional Democrats more than Bush to handle the issue.
And these are the voters who are going to power the Republican drive to transform Social Security? Seems hard to believe based on these data.
On the specific plan Bush is putting forward to deal with Social Security, the WP/ABC poll reports markedly more positive results for that plan than almost all recent polls, including the Pew and Time polls summarized above. A question that mentions a change in the guaranteed benefit returns a close split (48 percent opposed/47 percent in favor) and a question than mentions this change in guaranteed benefit along with "a stock market option for Social Security contributions" returns a 54-41 majority in support.
How can this be--how did the WP/ABC come up results so radically different from other polls?
Simple. It's all in the question wording. The change in the guaranteed benefit that is mentioned in the WP/ABC questions is not described as a cut in the guaranteed benefit but rather as "a reduction in the rate of growth in Social Security benefits for future retirees"--a question wording that no doubt elicted broad smiles down at the White House and in the offices of Congressional Republican leaders.
And I'm sure it's true that if the massive cut in guaranteed benefits proposed by Bush is uniformly referred to simply as a reduction in the rate of growth of benefits, Bush's plan could have pretty smooth sailing. But of course that's not where the debate is going to take place and it's rather odd that the WP/ABC poll chose to use the locution favored in RNC talking points, rather than the straightforward wording favored by other pollsters.
So these particular results should be treated very skeptically. In particular, no one should suppose that Congressional Democrats' criticism of Bush's proposed cut in guaranteed benefits is likely to be ineffective, based on the WP/ABC findings. Noam Scheiber is all over this one and his assessment is worth quoting at length:
According to the Post, the response [to the proposed change in guaranteed benefits] was basically a wash: 48 percent opposed the idea, 47 percent supported it. So does that mean it would be hard for Democrats to defeat privatization by emphasizing benefit cuts?
What would be a wash is a debate in which one side argues: "To help keep the Social Security system funded, we want to reduce the rate of growth in guaranteed benefits for future retirees by up to one and a half percent a year." And the other side argues: "We oppose reducing the rate of growth in guaranteed benefits for future retirees by up to one and a half percent a year, even though it would help keep the Social Security system funded and would, truth be told, be the responsible thing to do."
What would not be a wash is a debate in which one side argues: "To help keep the Social Security system funded, we want to reduce the rate of growth in guaranteed benefits for future retirees by up to one and a half percent a year." And the other side argues: "Bush will SLASH your Social Security benefits." Or, even better, "Bush will SLASH your Social Security benefits by $4 TRILLION," which is the kind of cut we're talking about.
Note to congressional Democrats: If there's something in here that doesn't make sense, please see "Medicare, slowing growth of, 1995," in your handbook.
4. The final poll to be considered here is the new Annenberg survey. Here's the lead paragraph from their report on the new poll:
George W. Bush will be sworn in this week to lead a nation giving him a lukewarm approval rating, unenthusiastic about his ideas on Social Security, impatient to get out of Iraq and showing no signs of post-election reconciliation, the University of Pennsylvania’s National Annenberg Election Survey shows.
The poll's specific findings on Social Security include startlingly lopsided 86-11 opposition to a proposal worded as "[w]hen current workers retire, giving them lower benefits than what they are now promised". Note the huge difference with the WP/ABC finding, though both questions are referring to the same proposal.
The Annenberg survey also finds that only 18 percent of the public favors Bush's plan to both reduce "promised benefits and current taxes by allowing workers to invest some of their Social Security contributions in the stock market" once it is mentioned that such a plan would entail borrowing as much as 2 trillion dollars to cover benefits for people who have paid into the current system.
And on Bush's alleged election mandate to transform Social Security, here is what the public has to say: just 23 percent think his election victory means the American people support his ideas about changing Social Secuirty, while 65 percent do not. And of those who said he did not have such support from the American people as a whole, only 19 percent believe he even has such support from the people who voted for him. Finally, by 50-32, the public says they personally do not support his ideas about Social Security.
The survey finds strikingly negative views of the situation in Iraq. On whether the situation in Iraq was worth going to war over, 54 percent say no and just 40 percent say yes. On whether Bush has a clear plan to bring the situation in Iraq to a successful conclusion, 62 percent say no and 32 percent say yes. On whether the election in Iraq will produce a stable government or not, 60 percent say no and 29 percent say yes.
And here are some particularly eye-opening results. When asked what the US should do if the Iraq election does not produce a stable government, only 39 percent say the US should stay as long as necessary to provide stability, while 56 percent say the US should start pulling out its troops right away (31 percent) or set a date for later this year when troop pullouts will start (25 percent).
Even starker, by 2:1 (67-32) the public agrees that "[d]emocracy and freedom in Iraq are important, but the war has cost the United States too much in lives and money already to stay much longer".
Will the pre-inauguration blues for the public turn into the post-inauguration blues for Bush and the Republicans? Stay tuned.