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Details Cloud Support for Social Security Plan

By John F. Harris and Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 22, 2004; Page A01

President Bush has wide support for his argument that Social Security needs dramatic change to meet its obligations to future retirees, but there remains considerable skepticism about his plan to let people invest a portion of their contribution to the program in the stock market, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Since his Nov. 2 reelection victory, Bush has frequently said the results were an endorsement by voters of the most dramatic revision of the retirement program since its inception nearly 70 years ago. But the survey shows that his efforts to educate the public about the idea and convince them of the merits are at best incomplete.

"A crisis is here," President Bush says, referring to the state of the Social Security system. (Ron Edmonds -- AP)

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A strong majority of respondents, 63 percent, do not think Social Security will have enough money to pay the benefits they are entitled to, and 74 percent think the system faces either major problems or is in crisis -- as Bush has asserted. The president also has at least general support from 53 percent of the public for the concept of letting people control some of their contributions to invest in the market.

It is on the specifics that Bush faces problems. Support dropped to an even split when people were told that the cost of the transition to a new program could reach $2 trillion over time, as some forecasts project. And 62 percent said they would not participate in such a program if it meant their retirement income would go up or down depending on the performance of their stock picks -- which is the essence of Bush's plan.

The results cast uncertainty not just on Bush's political strategy but also on that of Democrats. In Congress, the opposition party has not yet unified around a position on what promises to be the dominant domestic issue of Bush's second term. The party, according to members of Congress and Democratic policy aides, faces a choice between opposing Bush's plan wholesale on philosophical grounds and critiquing it on practical merits, with at least the possibility that some Democrats would back a negotiated plan that addresses their concerns.

Some people described the Democratic options toward Bush's plan as either "yes, but" or "hell, no." Reflecting the first approach, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) has endorsed individual investment accounts, but as a supplement to Social Security that would leave the traditional benefit intact. "The best critique is a plan of our own rather than a defense of the status quo, and our plan must reveal the weaknesses in Bush's own plan," he said.

Some other Democrats have suggested the status quo is not quite as worrisome as Bush has asserted. After Bush said at a news conference Monday that a "crisis is here," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) objected, citing studies that Social Security could stay solvent for decades with no changes. "Social Security faces a long-term challenge, but it is a manageable challenge that can be addressed without jeopardizing a system that has provided retirement security for millions of Americans," she said in a statement.

Central to the Democrats' strategic debate is whether Bush can indeed claim a mandate for major surgery to Social Security, once known as a politically untouchable "third rail" that would scorch any politician who meddled. Last week, Bush boasted, "This is an issue on which I campaigned, and I'm still standing."

Bush did mention his ambitious Social Security agenda frequently on the 2004 campaign trail, but he was vague about his plans and will not offer a concrete proposal for at least several weeks. While promoting private savings accounts, he has not discussed any of the unpopular changes that could make the system solvent, such as increasing the retirement age or otherwise reducing payouts. During his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Bush mentioned the subject only briefly, saying, "We must strengthen Social Security by allowing younger workers to save some of their taxes in personal accounts, a nest egg you can call your own and government can never take away."

Gene Sperling, who was President Bill Clinton's economic adviser, said: "All the president has shown is that you can vaguely talk about a free-lunch privatization proposal and not have that be decisively detrimental to your electoral outcome. There's a big difference between that and having a mandate to carve up Social Security by cutting guaranteed benefits and adding significant market risk."

But Republicans say Bush has made steady progress in conditioning the public to at least be open to change, especially given that Social Security has traditionally been seen as a Democratic franchise. "Historically, we've been behind on this issue. Now he's about even on it," said Republican consultant David Winston.

Referring to the small majority in the Post-ABC poll who support private accounts, Winston said: "That's still not enough, but it's a starting point that other Republican presidents have not had. It's not so much a mandate as an opportunity."

In other results from the survey, a plurality of 43 percent said they want Bush to choose an ideological moderate if he gets to nominate someone to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court, vs. 33 percent who want a conservative justice and 21 percent who prefer a liberal. On perhaps the most divisive issue in Supreme Court politics, abortion rights, 55 percent said they want abortion to be legal in all or most cases.

Regarding legislation that Bush signed last week to restructure the nation's intelligence community, 69 percent of respondents think the new system will improve U.S. intelligence-gathering operations, while 23 percent said it will not.

Polling director Richard Morin contributed to this report.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company