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Social Security and the president

To judge from the recent plethora, surveys about Social Security are becoming as important to the economy as the program itself. Whatever their source, the results of these polls all converge on three central conclusions:

To judge from the recent plethora, surveys about Social Security are becoming as important to the economy as the program itself.

Whatever their source, the results of these polls all converge on three central conclusions:

• Voters are tuning in to the debate.

• Voters are rejecting the president’s plan.

• The president’s strategy of selling his plan by creating the atmosphere of crisis will not work.

Americans are according a growing level of attention to the Social Security debate. Since January, the CBS News/New York Times poll has recorded a 21-point increase in the number having heard at least “some” about the plan. Pew found a similar jump in awareness.

While President Bush hasn’t quite attracted the level of attention that President Clinton did for his healthcare plan or that Prince Charles did for his first wedding, the public is moderately attentive. Thirty-one percent say they are following the Social Security news very closely, compared to 49 percent who said that about the Clinton healthcare plan. But more voters are following this issue than paid attention to welfare reform, the prescription-drug plan or No Child Left Behind.

Having captured public attention, has the president made his case? Not at all. Almost every poll that has been tracking public views of the Bush approach has seen support fall as voters have tuned in to the dialogue.

Pew found support for private accounts declining from 70 percent in 2000 to 58 percent in September 2004 and 46 percent in February. In the CBS News/New York Times poll, support dwindled to 43 percent, down from 54 percent in 2002. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll suggested a five-point falloff. The consequences of privatization — benefit cuts and an increased deficit — are unacceptable to most voters.
The president made Social Security privatization the centerpiece of his State of the Union address. Rove dubbed it the top domestic priority. Bush and his Cabinet have crisscrossed the country attempting to drum up support for his plan. They have established war rooms, sponsored briefings and released a supposedly well-tested manual for selling the plan.

Bush has attracted attention, but not converts. Indeed, the more people learn the less they like. That’s evident not only from the decline in support that has accompanied the increase in awareness but from the crosstabs as well. Opposition to the president’s plan is 19 points higher among those who are familiar with it than among those who have heard little or nothing about it.

The president’s failure on Social Security is strategic. The goal was to sell privatization the same way he sold Iraq and reelection: by fomenting an air of crisis. Since Social Security and crisis go together like Mutt and Jeff, it seemed like an easy case to make.

That was part of the problem. An ever-present crisis isn’t much of a crisis. In the public mind, the Social Security “crisis” has been with us for decades. Indeed, it appears less severe than it has in the past. Sixty percent think the system will not have enough money to pay benefits when they retire. But an even larger 66 percent held that view in 1997. The CBS News/New York Times poll said 49 percent now believe Social Security will not have enough money to pay benefits, but 58 percent expected no payout in 1983.

Every feedback loop to which this White House is connected is flashing danger signals. The polls are falling, the members are screaming, the leaders are chickening out. Yet the president persists in announcing another attempt at public education, another effort in the Congress.

Only the president sees possibilities in a plan the public has rejected.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) last year.