Public Voicing Doubts on Iraq and the Economy, Poll Finds

By ADAM NAGOURNEY and JANET ELDER

New York Times

January 21, 2005

On the eve of President Bush's second inauguration, most Americans say they do not expect the economy to improve or American troops to be withdrawn from Iraq by the time Mr. Bush leaves the White House, and many have reservations about his signature plan to overhaul Social Security, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll.

Seventy percent, however, said they thought Mr. Bush would succeed in changing the Social Security system. The poll found that 43 percent of respondents expect most forms of abortion to be illegal by the time Mr. Bush leaves the White House, given Mr. Bush's expected appointments to the Supreme Court.

The Times/CBS News Poll offered the kind of conflicting portrait of the nation's view of Mr. Bush that was evident throughout last year's presidential campaign. Nearly 60 percent of respondents said they were generally optimistic on the eve of Mr. Bush's swearing-in about the next four years, but clear majorities disapproved of Mr. Bush's management of the economy and the war in Iraq.

Nearly two-thirds said a second Bush term would leave the country with a larger deficit, while 47 percent said that a second Bush term would divide Americans. A majority of those surveyed said that they did not expect any improvement in health care, education, or in reducing the cost of prescription drugs for the elderly by January 2009.

Just under 80 percent, including a majority of those who said they voted for Mr. Bush in November, said it would not be possible to overhaul Social Security, cut taxes, and finance the war in Iraq without increasing the budget deficit, despite Mr. Bush's promises to the contrary.

The findings, coming after a tensely competitive election, suggest that Mr. Bush does not have broad popular support as he embarks on what the White House has signaled would be an extraordinarily ambitious second term, which in many ways will commence with Mr. Bush's swearing-in and speech on Thursday. That could undermine his leverage in Congress, where even some Republicans have expressed concern about major aspects of Mr. Bush's Social Security plans.

Mr. Bush's job approval rating is at 49 percent as he heads into his second term - significantly lower than the ratings at the start of the second terms of the last two presidents who served eight years, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. And 56 percent said the country has gone off on the wrong track, about as bad a rating Mr. Bush has received on this measure since entering the White House.

Still, as Mr. Bush enters what the White House views as a critical two-year window before his power begins to wane, the poll suggests that Mr. Bush's effort to lay the groundwork to reshape the Social Security system has had some success.

Fifty percent said Social Security is in crisis, echoing an assertion that Mr. Bush has made and that has been disputed by Democrats and independent analysts.

Answering another question, 51 percent said that while there were good things about Social Security, the system needed "fundamental changes," while 24 percent said it needed a complete overhaul.

But 50 percent said it was a "bad idea" to permit workers to divert part of their payroll taxes into the stock market, as Mr. Bush is expected to propose. That number leaps to 70 percent when the question includes the possibility that future guaranteed benefits would be reduced by as much as one-third.

Nearly 60 percent of respondents said they were not likely to put their own Social Security money into the stock market, and a majority said that in pushing for a Social Security overhaul, Mr. Bush was more interested in helping Wall Street than protecting the average American.

"I think it's a bad idea," said Tina DeSantis, 46, of Pennsylvania, who identified herself as a Republican. "People that I've encountered don't necessarily have the tools necessary to make proper decisions with them and end up losing money."

And Ilene Bernards, 46, a Republican from Clinton, Utah, said she feared that permitting people to invest in private accounts would end up destabilizing the system.

"We would be farther in the hole than we already are with Social Security, because at some point if people use their money and lose it and they're old, then somebody is still going to have to take care of them," Ms. Bernards said.

The nationwide telephone poll was taken Friday through Tuesday with 1,118 adults, and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

The poll suggests that in some ways, many Americans are expecting Mr. Bush to succeed in making major changes in the political landscape over the next four years.

That is most notable on the question of abortion; 71 percent expect Mr. Bush to appoint Supreme Court justices who will vote to outlaw abortion.

A majority of Americans, 71 percent, support some forms of legal abortion, albeit some with more restrictions than now exist.

Tony Rhoden, 53, an independent from Queens, said of the president regarding abortion: "He is against it, so obviously whatever judges he picks are going to be ruling in his favor. He wants someone who thinks the way he does. It seems to me that with everybody he's putting into place whatever he wants, they're going to get for him."

The poll also found that concern about the war in Iraq is rising: 75 percent said Mr. Bush had no clear plan for getting out of Iraq, a sharp jump up from 58 percent last fall, and a majority said that he routinely exaggerated conditions there.

And 75 percent said they believe a significant number of American troops will still be stationed in Iraq when Mr. Bush leaves the presidency.

The poll also found that 53 percent of Americans think the war in Iraq will not have been worth the loss of American life if unconventional weapons are never found.

A majority of respondents said that Iraq, which has been plagued by violence over the last week, is not secure enough to proceed with elections in two weeks, as scheduled.

However, the respondents are divided over whether the elections should be postponed in the hope of some sense of order being restored there.

In any event, only 15 percent of respondents said that elections would produce a decline in violence in Iraq; 40 percent said it would create more violence.

Respondents do not appear to share Mr. Bush's concern about the urgency of the Social Security problem, in the context of other problems facing the nation.

Asked to name the most important problem facing the country, just 3 percent named Social Security, while 11 percent named Iraq and Osama bin Laden, and 10 percent identified "war" and the economy.

Still, 54 percent of respondents said they do not expect the Social Security system to have enough money to pay them pensions when they retire, a figure that has not varied much since the Times/CBS News Poll started asking the question in 1981.

And younger people were much more likely to support the change Mr. Bush is seeking than older Americans.

On taxes, another area where the Bush administration is expected to make a major effort over the next four years, 54 percent said investment and interest income should be taxed at the same rate as wages.

Republicans have been moving to reduce the tax on investments and interest as a way of overhauling the tax system and encouraging business investment.

At the same time, by a margin of 47 to 40 percent, Americans think that temporary tax cuts that were passed in 2001, and are due to expire this year, should be made permanent.

Fred Backus contributed reporting for this article.