New Poll Finds Bush Priorities Are Out of Step With Americans

By ADAM NAGOURNEY and JANET ELDER

New York Times

March 3, 2005

Americans say President Bush does not share the priorities of most of the country on either domestic or foreign issues, are increasingly resistant to his proposal to revamp Social Security and say they are uneasy with Mr. Bush's ability to make the right decisions about the retirement program, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

The poll underscores just how little headway Mr. Bush has made in his effort to build popular support as his proposal for overhauling Social Security struggles to gain footing in Congress. At the same time, there has been an increase in respondents who say that efforts to restore order in Iraq are going well, even as an overwhelming number of Americans say Mr. Bush has no clear plan for getting out of Iraq.

On Social Security, 51 percent said permitting individuals to invest part of their Social Security taxes in private accounts, the centerpiece of Mr. Bush's plan, was a bad idea, even as a majority said they agreed with Mr. Bush that the program would become insolvent near the middle of the century if nothing was done. The number who thought private accounts were a bad idea jumped to 69 percent if respondents were told that the private accounts would result in a reduction in guaranteed benefits. And 45 percent said Mr. Bush's private account plan would actually weaken the economic underpinnings of the nation's retirement system.

In a sign of the political obstacles confronting the White House, a majority of those surveyed said they would support raising the amount of income subject to Social Security payroll tax above its current ceiling of $90,000, an idea floated by Mr. Bush but shot down by Republican Congressional leaders. Yet there is strong resistance to other options available to Mr. Bush and lawmakers to repair the system, in particular to raising the retirement age or making participation voluntary.

Notwithstanding Mr. Bush's argument that citizens should be given more control over their retirement savings, almost four out of five respondents said it was the government's responsibility to assure a decent standard of living for the elderly.

The poll was the first conducted by The Times and CBS News since the president's inauguration. It comes after six hectic weeks for the administration, in which Mr. Bush has witnessed successful elections in Iraq - which he hailed as validation of his decision to remove Saddam Hussein - but also the toughest period he has encountered on Capitol Hill, as he has struggled to win support for the signature proposal of his second term.

In an apparent reflection of the success of the Iraq elections, 53 percent of those surveyed said that efforts to bring order to Iraq were going very or somewhat well, up from 41 percent a month ago. That is the highest rating on that score since the capture of Mr. Hussein.

Still, 42 percent now say that Mr. Bush would have been better off trying to counter the threat of North Korea before invading Iraq, compared with 45 percent who think Mr. Bush was correct to focus first on Iraq.

More broadly, the poll suggests that Mr. Bush is in a problematic position as he enters a second term intent on pushing an extraordinarily assertive agenda through Congress.

Four months after Mr. Bush won a solid re-election over Senator John Kerry, 63 percent of respondents say the president has different priorities on domestic issues than most Americans. Asked to choose among five domestic issues facing the country, respondents rated Social Security third, behind jobs and health care. And nearly 50 percent said Democrats were more likely to make the right decisions about Social Security, compared with 31 percent who said the same thing about Republicans.

"There are so many other things that seem to me to be more critical and immediate: I think the national debt is absolutely an immediate thing to address," said Irv Packer, 66, a Missouri Republican. He added, "Another one that I'd really like to see people working on is the environment."

Lisa Delaune, 37, a student from Houston and a member of the Green Party, said in a follow-up interview, "My opinion is that the president favors big business over the health and well-being and overall stability of the entire American population."

And Mr. Bush does not appear to be much more in step with the nation on what the White House has long viewed as his strong suit: 58 percent of respondents said the White House did not share the foreign affairs priorities of most Americans.

For all that, Mr. Bush's approval rating remains unchanged, at 49 percent, from a month ago, suggesting that the disagreement with Mr. Bush's ideas has yet to take a toll on America's view of him.

The poll was conducted by telephone with 1,111 adults from Thursday through Monday. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

If Americans are ambivalent about the need for Washington to grapple with Social Security, the poll found abundant concern with the budget deficit, with much of the blame attributed to Mr. Bush. Sixty percent of respondents - including 48 percent of self-described conservatives - said they disapproved of how Mr. Bush was managing the deficit. And 90 percent of respondents described the deficit as a very or somewhat serious problem.

The focus on Social Security has, if anything, aggravated concern about the deficit. About 30 percent said that the cost of Mr. Bush's proposal to create private accounts would increase the deficit. And on another question, about 40 percent said that Mr. Bush's budget proposal, made last month, would also result in increasing the deficit, notwithstanding the deep cuts Mr. Bush proposed to try to pull back the deficit.

The poll underlines the difficulty of the task Mr. Bush faces in trying to overhaul Social Security, given that the heart of the White House strategy has been to sell the public on the need for repairing the system, in the calculation that would corral Congress behind Mr. Bush. So far, at least, the evidence suggests that campaign has not succeeded.

Indeed, the percentage of respondents who think it is a good idea to permit people to invest in private accounts is as low as it has been since the question was first asked in May 2000.

"I don't think he's listening to the people concerning Social Security," said Beverly Workman, a West Virginia Democrat who said she voted for Mr. Bush. "I think the public wants him to leave it alone."

Jim Choi, 34, an unemployed biotechnology worker from California, said: "The way the system is set up, it's not going to go bankrupt. People will get by; we all adapt."

Still, Mr. Bush's argument that the system is approaching bankruptcy - a contention disputed by Democrats and independent analysts - seems to be taking hold. Two-thirds of respondents say the system will be bankrupt by 2042 if nothing is done to repair it. Sixty-one percent said the program has worked well until now, but the next generation will need a different kind of program to assure that they receive benefits.

And 55 percent said the problems with Social Security were serious enough that they should be fixed now, compared to 35 percent who said they did not need to be addressed for another 10 or 15 years.

The elections in Iraq have contributed to some improvement in the perception of Mr. Bush's policy there, though it remains far from popular. In this poll, 50 percent of those surveyed said they disapproved of his Iraq policy, down from 55 percent a month ago, while 45 percent approved, up from 40 percent.

On North Korea, 81 percent said that that nation does indeed now have nuclear weapons, and 7 in 10 said it poses a serious threat to the United States. Still, a majority of Americans said they opposed taking pre-emptive action against North Korea if diplomatic efforts failed - a shift from before the war in Iraq, when a majority said they would support military action if diplomatic efforts failed.

Fred Backus contributed reporting for this article.