By Jonathan Weisman
Three months after President Bush launched his drive to restructure Social Security by creating private investment accounts, public support for his program remains weak, with only 35 percent of Americans now saying they approve of his handling of the issue, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
While the White House has helped convince more than two-thirds of those polled that Social Security is heading for a crisis or possible bankruptcy without change, 56 percent disapprove of his approach, a survey of 1,001 adults conducted March 10-13 shows. By comparison, 38 percent approved of his handling of the issue and 52 percent disapproved of it in mid-December.
Moreover, 58 percent of those polled this time said the more they hear about Bush's plan, the less they like it. The latest polling, combined with detailed interviews last week, shows that Bush's drive to significantly alter the 70-year-old national insurance program has run into significant hurdles with every age cohort.
A majority of elderly voters have turned against the plan for private accounts, even though the White House has assured them it would have no impact on their Social Security benefits. Younger workers, who have the most to gain, also tend to be the most difficult to mobilize, according to interviews. And many middle-aged workers are faced with the reality that there would not be enough time before their retirement to gain much financial benefit from the new approach.
"The president knows it's a challenge and is taking it head-on," White House spokesman Trent Duffy said. "He is just getting started, and he's going to keep traveling, pushing and explaining to people of all ages why Social Security needs to be fixed permanently and why it's best that personal accounts be part of the solution."
For middle-aged workers such as Kathy Remenar of Midland, Mich., the issue is simple mathematics.
"I personally wouldn't get a whole lot out of it, really," said the 46-year-old director of science and technology for Dow Corning Corp.'s specialty chemicals business. "It's not relevant to me."
Bush has promised that, under his proposal, workers would eventually be able to divert 4 percent of their income subject to payroll taxes to private accounts, which could then be invested in stocks and bonds. A 46-year-old earning the maximum income subject to Social Security taxation -- currently $90,000 -- could theoretically salt away $3,600 a year.
But the plan would be phased in slowly, starting in 2009 with an initial annual cap of $1,000 and rising by $100 a year. It would take an additional 26 years for someone at the taxable maximum to save the promised 4 percent. By then, Remenar would be 76 and long since retired. And in the short time period available to middle-aged workers, investment gains would have to exceed inflation by 3 percent for the accounts to make more money than the traditional Social Security system would provide.
"If there are no other incentives than this, we probably wouldn't take part in it, because the numbers don't make a whole lot of sense for us personally," said Sue Smorodin, 45, a homemaker in St. Louis.
Republican Michael Cardwell, a land-use planner in Washington state, did the math. He would retire with $11,000 in his account, plus maybe $900 more in investment gains if all went well on the stock market.
"Wow," Cardwell, 50, said with a laugh. "I may get one additional paycheck, thank you very much." Nonetheless, he said he will support the president.
Not all middle-aged workers are skeptical. Marilyn Donnelly, a 46-year-old nurse on Florida's central Atlantic coast, said that with luck a personal account could grow substantially, and she relishes the opportunity to give it a try. She is already saving 16 percent of her income for retirement, Donnelly said, but too much of her paycheck is going to a Social Security system that is not likely to do as well with the money as she could.
"I want the opportunity to invest some of that money myself so it will grow more than what Social Security is going to give me," said Donnelly, of Rockledge. "And I feel [Bush is] offering me that opportunity."
But after nearly a dozen interviews with middle-aged voters, it appears Donnelly's optimism is not widely shared.
"If you're my age, it isn't going to make much difference really," said Mark Kaufman, 52, a rancher and farmer in Nebraska's panhandle. "I can't get all that excited."
"It won't add up to much," agreed John Hall, 50, a small-business man in Lubbock, Tex., and a strong supporter of the president. "But for my daughter, it could be a tremendous amount. She's 19 years old, and for her, the future of the Social Security system is not too bright."
Indeed, the White House is pinning its political hopes on younger voters such as Hall's daughter. They tend to be deeply ambivalent about the future of Social Security and blessed with enough time until retirement to build up sizable accounts.
In this month's poll, 68 percent of adults 18 to 29 years old said they support investing some Social Security contributions in the stock market. That support falls with the respondents' age, to 60 percent among those 40 to 49, 53 percent among those 50 to 64, and 37 percent among those 65 and older.
But young workers present their own political problems. For one thing, they tend to be less politically involved. Only 38 percent of young respondents say they know much about Bush's Social Security proposal, well below the levels seen among middle-aged and elderly respondents.
At 32, Kathy Lavigne of Wayzata, Minn., said she thinks she supports the president's Social Security plans. But, she conceded, she cannot be sure.
"Honestly, I've discussed it with my business partner here or there, but I'm not watching it too closely," the insurance saleswoman said.
If she were moved to call her representative in Congress, she would have a little problem. She does not know her congressman's name.
If it were up to Ray Waters, a 32-year-old construction sales representative in Kansas, he would keep all of his Social Security taxes in a private account, but absent that, he strongly backs Bush's proposal. "I guess it comes down to it's my money," he said.
But though his congressman, Rep. Dennis Moore, is a perennial Republican target, Waters is not clamoring for a bullhorn to pressure the state's only Democrat in Congress.
"I don't get to camp out in front of Fox News as much as I would like to," he said. "Between work and a little boy and a baby, there's not a whole lot of time for politics."
Finally, younger workers may support the idea of private accounts, but they also tend to oppose Bush. Democratic candidate John F. Kerry claimed 54 percent of the 18-to-29-year-old vote in November, the only age bracket he carried. And distrust of the president is lingering among even some young workers inclined to support investing part of their Social Security contribution. Only 40 percent of these younger workers say they support Bush's Social Security proposal.
"I'm not a big fan of Bush, not at all," said Michelle Hinson, 31, of Morgan Hill, Calif., just south of San Jose. But she grudgingly says she likes the idea of personal accounts. "If I think it's a good idea, then I'm willing to listen and hear what's going on. But for the most part, I don't agree with anything he's doing."
If young voters tend to be apathetic or ambivalent, the elderly are anything but. GOP strategists are convinced Republican politicians must emphasize over and over that anyone older than 55 will not be affected by the plan. By exempting those in or near retirement from participation in the accounts or any benefit reductions, Bush hopes to neutralize opposition from the most vocal and reliable voting bloc.
But the strategy may backfire, homemaker Smorodin said, noting that her mother has grown incensed about the issue. By and large, the elderly do understand the president has promised not to touch their Social Security checks, according to polling.
But that is not relevant to their political opposition, Smorodin said, noting that older people also worry that pension benefit cuts will hurt their children and grandchildren.
At 69, Gene Wallace knows the White House's proposal would have no impact on his Social Security check, but if Bush believes that will silence the Republican mayor of Coldwater, Mich., Wallace grumbled, "he's all wet."
"I'm a parent as well as a grandparent. Somewhere along the line, they are going to be eligible for retirement assistance," he said, with all the energy he could muster three weeks after open-heart surgery. "It's everybody's concern what happens to this country."
Assistant polling director Claudia Deane contributed to this report.