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Bush Approval Ratings Hit the Skids in New Newsweek Poll

A new Newsweek poll confirms Bush's generally poor and sinking approval ratings across the board.

Start with his overall approval rating of 45 percent, down 5 points since early February. Then consider his approval rating on the economy, at just 42 percent with 51 percent disapproval. And his rating on Iraq, at 41 percent with 54 percent disapproval, is his worst ever in this poll.

As usual, the sole exception to a string of dismal approval ratings in this poll is Bush's rating on "terrorism and homeland security". And even here, his 57 percent approval rating in this area is tied for his lowest ever in this poll.

Turning to health care, including Medicare, only 34 percent say they approve of the job Bush is doing, compared to 56 percent who say they don't, also a low for Bush in this poll. Bush also hits new lows on the environment (41 percent approval), on energy policy (35 percent approval, with 45 percent disapproval--also his first net negative rating in this area) and on the federal budget deficit (29 percent approval with 60 percent disapproval). And his job rating on education, 46 percent, is tied for his lowest ever in that particular area.

Quite a sterling record! And we haven't even talked about his rating on Social Security in this poll: a magnificent 33 percent, with 59 percent approval. This is the first time Newsweek has asked this item during Bush's presidency, so there is no trend data. However, that 33 percent rating is exactly at the average of the last five public polls to release job ratings for Bush on Social Security, so it is no anomaly: the public just doesn't like--in fact, strongly dislikes--the job he is doing on this issue.

Two recent articles shed light on why the public may not be warming up to Bush's activities in the Social Security area: the private accounts he is proposing make them nervous for some very good reasons. One is that, as discussed in a Saturday Washington Post article, the returns on these private accounts will probably not be nearly as good as the White House says they will be. Here's the basic analysis, as summarized in the article (the full paper referred to below, by Yale economist Robert Shiller, can be found here):

Under the Bush plan, workers ultimately would be able to invest 4 percent of their income subject to Social Security taxes in their choice of stock and bond funds. At age 47, workers who had chosen private accounts would automatically be shifted to a life-cycle portfolio, unless they and their spouse specifically opt out with a waiver acknowledging awareness of higher risk.

When workers with private accounts retire, the Bush system would subtract from their traditional Social Security benefit all of the money deposited in the private account, plus 3 percent interest above inflation. That "offset" or "claw-back" equals the amount the White House assumes those deposits would have earned in Treasury bonds had they gone into the Social Security system.

But the 3 percent hurdle appears too high for many to clear, Shiller found, especially with the conservative strategy the administration has embraced. According to U.S. historical rates of return, the life-cycle portfolio fell short of the 3 percent threshold 32 percent of the time, meaning nearly a third of personal account holders would have been better off sticking with the traditional Social Security system.

The median rate of return was 3.4 percent, barely better than the traditional system. Upon retirement, accounts would yield an annuity payment of about $1,000 a year, "hardly a windfall," Shiller said.

But he also adjusted for what he expects to be lower future rates of investment return by using historic rates of return from international stock and bond markets. Those returns "correspond more closely to projections of financial economists and should be emphasized more as the appropriate evaluation of the accounts going forward," Shiller wrote.

The results were not encouraging: The life-cycle portfolio under these adjusted returns lost money compared with the traditional system 71 percent of the time, with a median rate of return of just 2.6 percent, $2,000 less in annual benefits than those of workers who stick with the traditional system.

Another reason for justifiable public nervousness about these accounts is the increasing problem of income volatility for American families. Here are some excerpts from an excellent article by Daniel Gross in the Sunday New York Times summarizing relevant recent research on this problem and its implications for the debate around Bush's private accounts plan:

After mining data from the Panel Study of Income and Dynamics, a database produced by the University of Michigan that tracks the incomes of the same families over a 40-year period, scholars have concluded that incomes are much less stable - i.e., much more volatile - today than they have been in the past. "There has unequivocally been general upward-trend income volatility since at least 1975," said Bruce A. Moffitt, the Krieger-Eisenhower professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University, who, with Professor Gottschalk, wrote one of the first papers on income volatility in the 1990's. "It accelerated in the 1980's, turned down in the early 1990's, and then accelerated into the end of the 1990's."

According to a measure of volatility constructed by Jacob S. Hacker, a Yale political scientist, which tracks the five-year moving average of family incomes, income volatility rose 88 percent between 1978 and 2000.

"The problem in the past few decades," Professor Moffitt said, "is that volatility has risen while real incomes haven't risen." What's more, income volatility has grown significantly for those who can afford it least. A series of articles last year in The Los Angeles Times, written by Peter G. Gosselin, who worked closely with Professor Moffitt and other scholars, reported that in the 1970's, income for middle-class Americans tended to fluctuate by 16 percent a year. But in the 1980's and 1990's, middle-class incomes fluctuated an average of 30 percent. For those whose earnings placed them in the bottom fifth, income volatility rose from 25 percent in the early 1970's to 50 percent in recent years.

Because of other longstanding trends in the economy, strong income volatility can wreak greater havoc now than it did in the past. "The old view among economists was that income volatility didn't affect consumption much," said Raj Chetty, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley. It was generally thought that when families' incomes fell sharply and unexpectedly, they would borrow, tap into savings or send a second adult (frequently a mother) into the work force rather than sharply reduce consumption. But, Professor Chetty said, "that no longer seems to be the case today."

Why? Many families already rely on two incomes. What's more, fixed commitments have risen as a percentage of total income. In her book, "The Two-Income Trap," Elizabeth Warren, a bankruptcy specialist at the Harvard Law School, found that the typical American household in the early 1970's spent about 54 percent of its income on big fixed expenses - home mortgage, health insurance, car, child care - with the rest left over for discretionary spending. By the early part of this decade, however, the typical family was spending 75 percent of its income on these large fixed costs. "They're spending much more of their income on things that can't be cut back quickly," said Professor Warren. "If you lose income suddenly, you can't decide to sell off one bedroom or decide to cover only half of your family" with insurance.

The factors that functioned as internal shock absorbers for families have weakened. And so, too, have external buffers. Over the last three decades, the percentage of workers covered by defined-benefit pension plans and employer-provided health insurance - guarantees that provide ballast for fluctuating incomes - has declined. Add this to the trend of rising volatility - especially for people in the lower and middle income levels - and it's easy to understand the reluctance to transform a government program that guarantees seniors an income.

Exactly. No wonder the public isn't chafing at the bit to sign up for Bush's private accounts plan. In today's economy especially, Bush's approach just seems too risky. That's why, when Bush tells people over and over that they shouldn't worry about risk and that they'll all be big winners with private accounts, the public doesn't buy it and, instead, keeps on telling pollsters they disapprove heavily of the job Bush is doing in the Social Security area.

There's a message there for the president, albeit not one he apparently cares to hear.