If you were President George W. Bush, the one piece of poll data on Social Security you might be paying the closest attention to right now is basic public approval of your handling of the issue. Just as overall job approval is an important summary indicator of public support for a president, Bush's approval rating on Social Security probably best indicates whether Americans are with him or against him as the national debate about restructuring the system continues.
As of today, the public tilts against Bush's handling of Social Security, although not strongly. A recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found 43% of Americans approving of his performance on the issue and 48% disapproving.
This somewhat anemic result cannot be explained away by other factors: In the same poll, Bush's overall job approval was a healthy 57% and his approval score was 50% or better for both the economy and foreign affairs. No, it appears that Bush's negative rating on Social Security is specific to that issue.
Why Focus on Approval?
Beyond this fundamental rating, interpreting public reaction to Bush's Social Security proposal is revealing itself to be more art than science. The level of Americans' support for restructuring Social Security with personal investment accounts ranges from a robust majority to a paltry minority. This is all dependent on question wording and survey context (see "Americans Appear Open to Arguments on Privatizing Social Security" in Related Items).
Given this blur of information, it may be helpful to separate the polling on Social Security into two categories:
- questions that reveal Americans' policy preferences on Social Security, therefore helping to guide legislators and the president in proposing and making changes to the system
- questions that accurately assess the political environment surrounding the issue indicating whether Americans favor or oppose Social Security reform, generally, or a particular piece of legislation, specifically
At the moment, the primary plan under consideration is President Bush's. And the question of the moment is how much political capital Bush has on the issue -- whether the public supports his initiative and wants Congress to pursue it, or whether it is a black hole that Congress should run from as fast as possible.
To accurately assess that, one needs as pure and simple a question as possible; one that mentions Bush as the promoter of the plan, but provides no substantive information about it. The point is not to inform respondents, but to determine their existing frame of mind on the issue -- however limited their knowledge base may be.
What Other Polls Are Showing
Public opinion on Social Security reform is a bit of a moving target at this early stage; although Bush has been talking about his plans for reforming the system for some time, his State of the Union address two weeks ago heightened focus on it and the debate has been gathering momentum since.
With that caveat, it is still worth reviewing Bush's ratings on Social Security from other organizations' polls, even though these were conducted before the State of the Union address. These results conform with Gallup's rating of Bush, all showing a plurality, if not a majority, of Americans sided against him.
- A TIME magazine poll from mid-January showed support similar to Gallup's: 40% approved of Bush's handling of "Social Security issues," while 49% disapproved.
- An ABC News/Washington Post poll, also in mid-January, showed less support: 38% approved of the way Bush is handling Social Security, and 55% disapproved.
- In late January, the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute found relatively negative ratings of Bush when measuring him on an A to F grading scale. Only 30% of Americans gave Bush an "A" or "B" grade, versus 43% grading him either "D" or "F." However, an additional 23% rated him a "C" for "average."
- A mid-January Democracy Corps poll by the Democratic polling firm of Greenberg Quinlin Rosner Research measured support for Bush's Social Security reform plans more specifically. This showed 41% in favor (either strongly or somewhat) and 44% opposed, with 15% unsure.
If you were a vulnerable freshman member of Congress, and the 2006 midterm elections were coming up a week after an up-or-down vote in Congress to implement Bush's plan, what poll data would you hone in on to decide whether voting for the plan is advisable? Probably not questions that provide respondents with many details about the plan, but unvarnished measures of whether the bill should pass or fail.
At this early stage in the debate, with Bush yet to issue a specific plan, such measures are hard to come by. Basic public approval of Bush on Social Security suffices as a good surrogate measure. And from the available evidence, the verdict is that Bush is running a support deficit on Social Security.