Americans divided on ‘private accounts’

/ Source: NBC News

While President Bush has spent much of the first month of his second term selling his plan to overhaul the nation’s Social Security system, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that Americans are split on his plan’s chief provision — allowing workers to invest their Social Security contributions. At the same time, the largely successful election in Iraq has boosted the public’s overall outlook in that country and also has buoyed the president’s own approval rating.

According to the poll, which was conducted by Hart/McInturff, 51 percent say it’s a bad idea to enable workers to invest their Social Security payroll taxes in the stock market. That finding is virtually unchanged from the last NBC/Journal survey taken the day of Bush’s inauguration, when Americans disapproved of private accounts by a 50-40 percent margin.

In addition, the poll shows that opponents of private accounts are more unlikely to change their mind on this issue than supporters. Sixty percent of those who believe that private accounts are a bad idea say that their position is firm, vs. 39 percent who say they’re open to changing their mind. By contrast, a whopping 68 percent of those who support private accounts suggest they might change their position.

These inauspicious numbers for Bush come after a month of promoting his Social Security plan in his inaugural address, his State of the Union speech, and at numerous town-hall meetings across the country. “As we start the debate, the president has his work cut out for him,” said Republican pollster Bill McInturff. “The drift is away from the need for private accounts.”

Nevertheless, McInturff cautions that public opinion on Social Security shouldn’t be expected to change after just one month. “It takes months," he observed. "It is the May or June numbers [when you’ll] know whether you are making progress."

As far as addressing the future solvency of Social Security, Bush has said that he’s open to all ideas, except for increasing payroll taxes. Among the ways that would make the system solvent, limiting benefits to wealthy retirees gets the most support (64 percent) in the NBC/Journal survey — followed by increasing payroll taxes (51 percent), tying increases in benefits to consumer prices rather than to wages (44 percent), ending the practice that allows some workers to receive benefits before retirement age (40 percent), and increasing the retirement age (32 percent).

The poll — which was conducted of 1,008 adults from Feb. 10-14, and which has a margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points — also has some positive numbers for Bush. For instance, 51 percent believe the results of the recent election in Iraq are legitimate because new Iraqi leaders were democratically elected, while 38 percent say they are illegitimate because violence and boycotts kept some Iraqis from the polls. That’s a significant reversal from January, when 50 percent expected the election results would be illegitimate.

“The election provided a great sense of confidence,” said Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart. “But I think the overall sense of opinion is, ‘How do we find our way out?’”

Moreover, the survey finds that a majority, 50-45 percent, approves of Bush’s job performance. That’s nearly unchanged from the January poll, which showed respondents approving of the president’s job by a 50-44 percent margin.

Finally, when asked by which one or two benchmarks — besides terrorism — Americans will judge Bush’s second term, a plurality (35 percent) cites the situation in Iraq. That’s followed by domestic issues like health care and education (30 percent), the economy (25 percent), the state of America’s moral values (15 percent), and changing Social Security (15 percent).

Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.