Where's The Momentum?

US President George W. Bush over US Social Security card, 2005/2/2
AP
It's been a battle worthy of an election year, but President Bush has generated little public enthusiasm for his bold plan to overhaul Social Security, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll.

While the president has spent considerable time and political capital promoting his plan in the first months of his second term, the public's reaction has been tepid.

Similar skepticism is sweeping Capitol Hill as well, CBS News Chief White House Correspondent John Roberts reports. Republicans Wednesday swung back hard against attacks from retirement groups, including the AARP, which has been campaigning fervently to derail Mr. Bush's plan.

Despite the group's complaints, President Bush said, "Older American have nothing to worry about - nothing changes."

Tom DeLay and other Republicans ripped into the AARP, showing that one thing's clear on The Hill: The Social Security gloves are off.

Democrats vow to put up an all-out fight to halt or delay the president's legislation, but the most troubling sentiments came from Mr. Bush's own party. Sen. Charles Grassley, who Roberts reports would be a key author of the legislation, said if privatization doesn't catch a wave of public support within two weeks, the bill could be dead.

Mr. Bush did get a much needed boost when the Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan told Congress changes are needed - and quickly. The President has set a deadline of year's end - but leaders of his own party aren't sure they can get it done.

"In terms of whether it'll be a week, a month, 6 months, or a year as to when we bring something to the floor, it's just too early," said Senate majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.

Although Americans agree with the president that the nation's retirement system is in trouble, just 16 percent share his view that it is facing a crisis. Support for his signature proposal to create private investment accounts under Social Security has fallen to a new low (43 percent), while a majority (51 percent) now calls it a bad idea.

ALLOWING PEOPLE TO INVEST THEIR SOCIAL SECURITY TAXES IS:

Now
Good idea
43%
Bad idea
51%

1/2005
Good idea
45%
Bad idea
50%

1/2002
Good idea
54%
Bad idea
39%

6/2001
Good idea
48%
Bad idea
46%

Support for Mr. Bush's privatization plan shrinks even lower, to 22 percent, when people are told it could mean a cut in their guaranteed retirement benefits.

And just 17 percent of Americans say they would support private accounts if it would lead to an increase in the federal budget deficit.

Further, there's widespread skepticism that privatization would do anything to bolster Social Security's overall financial health. Just 19 percent think it would, while 45 percent think it would make things worse.

Overall, the public has serious misgivings about Mr. Bush's approach to Social Security. Less than one-third (31 percent) say they're confident he will make the right decisions on the issue, while 63 percent are uneasy.

Opinions about the president's plan split sharply along party lines. More than six in 10 Republicans are confident in Mr. Bush's handling of Social Security, while 85 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of Independents are uneasy.

Wealthier Americans, those with household incomes of $75,000 or more, are the most likely to support the president's plan. But even in that income group, a majority (57 percent) still says they're uneasy. That uneasiness extends to Americans in all age groups.

CONFIDENT BUSH WILL MAKE RIGHT DECISION ABOUT SOCIAL SECURITY

All
Confident
31%
Uneasy
63%

Rep.
Confident
63%
Uneasy
31%

Dem.
Confident
12%
Uneasy
85%

Ind.
Confident
24%
Uneasy
68%


Confident
27%
Uneasy
67%


Confident
43%
Uneasy
57%

The poll finds that Americans favor alternative approaches to Social Security reform over Mr. Bush's privatization plan. The most popular alternative is raising the $90,000 cap on income subject to Social Security taxes, followed by raising the percentage of income withheld.

Doubts about Mr. Bush's Social Security plan reflect a broader questioning of his domestic priorities. Just 31 percent say the Bush administration shares Americans' domestic priorities, while 63 percent say it does not.

Americans rate Social Security third on a list of top domestic concerns, behind jobs and the economy and health care.




To read the full poll, click here.

For detailed information on how CBS News conducts public opinion surveys, click here.

This poll was conducted among a nationwide random sample of 1111 adults interviewed by telephone February 24-28, 2004. The error due to sampling could be plus or minus three percentage points for results based on all adults. Error for subgroups is higher.