The new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows some good news for the president on Iraq and very bad news on Social Security.
The Social Security numbers appear to be in line with other recent soundings on the key points: Opponents of the president's plan clearly, though not overwhelmingly, outnumber supporters (51% to 40%). And opponents are far more fixed in their opposition than supporters are fixed in their support (60% of opponents are "completely firm", only 31% of supporters.)
A difference slice of that last question suggests the unfirm ground on which the president's supporters are standing. Fully 68% of private accounts supporters are "open to changing [their] mind.
The 51% to 40% reading above is for the question: "do you think that it is a good idea or a bad idea to change the Social Security system to allow workers to invest their Social Security contributions in the stock market?"
Further down into the poll (here's the full data) they ask the question in a slightly different fashion and this one gives a clearer sense of the downward trend of support over the last two months.
The question asks ...
Please tell me which of the following approaches to dealing with Social Security you would preferââ(A)making some adjustments but leaving the Social Security system basically as is and running the risk that the system will fall short of money as more people retire and become eligible for benefits, OR (B) changing the Social Security system by allowing people to invest some of their Social Security taxes in private accounts--like IRA's or 401k's--and running the risk that some people will lose money in their private accounts due to drops in the stock market?
Back in December the numbers were 45% to 39% in favor of private accounts; in January, it was close to tied, 46% to 44% in favor of private accounts. In this new poll, private accounts have dropped to 40% support while 50% favor the "basically as is" option.
Those numbers yield only one credible interpretation: the more the president talks about privatization the less popular it gets. One might more generously say that the longer the debate goes on, the less popular it gets. But politically speaking, same difference.
One other point.
The question is not included in the initial table of results (it says additional data will be published tomorrow). But the article (sub. required) on the front page of the Journal has this paragraph ...
Moreover, the poll shows that the values and priorities the public brings to the debate make it an uphill fight for the president. By 61%-32%, Americans say Congress should emphasize "guarantees for the future" rather than "more responsibility and personal control" in addressing Social Security. As outlined by White House aides, Mr. Bush's plan calls for workers to accept reductions in promised benefits in return for the establishment of private accounts that they could control.
Clearly, that's not good news for the president.
But it's more than that. It's not too much to say that conventional wisdom in Washington and in elite journalistic circles generally (not to mention right-wing-radio-jabberdom) would suggest that those numbers should be reversed. The private accounts model is not only held to be more 'modern'; the assumption is that Americans are increasingly disposed to prefer greater risk in exchange for greater individual control and the possibility of gain.
Now, opinions about Social Security are perhaps not the best ones on which to test these broader cultural questions since (as we've been arguing here for some time) Social Security is supposed to be extremely risk-averse. That's the whole point: it's the part of the retirement security pie in which there is supposed to be a flat guarantee, as opposed to employer pensions and private savings, in which there are greater levels of risk and the opportunity for greater gain.
Still, those numbers should prompt some real questioning on the part of many commentators about whether the cultural and ideological road map they're working from really describes American society today.