It's worth reviewing where we are in the Social Security debate. President Bush has proposed a big initiative at great political risk to himself, confident that he can sway public opinion in his favor as he did with Iraq. But he's about to find out that domestic politics plays by a different set of rules.
Two political science books are instructive here. Politicians Don't Pander, a book by Lawrence Jacobs and Robert Shapiro, criticizes the way that politicians pursue their own preferences rather than responding to public opinion, creating a cycle of partisan conflict and alienation. Jacobs and Shapiro analyze Clinton's health care defeat in 1993-1994 and the attempt by the Gingrich Congress to reshape the federal government in 1995-1996. In both cases, the proponents of change were full of ideological conviction that they could shape public opinion, but when their opponents emphasized how risky and uncertain the outcomes could be, the public turned decisively against them. Similarly, in On Deaf Ears, George C. Edwards III, finds that the hype about the "bully pulpit" is wrong -- most presidents are not able to move public opinion in their favor.
The survey of 1,008 adults, conducted Feb. 10-14, found that 51% Americans consider it "a bad idea" to change Social Security by allowing workers to invest payroll taxes in the stock market, while 40% think it's a "good idea." That is essentially unchanged since January, despite Mr. Bush's attempt to drum up support for the idea in the State of the Union address and a cross-country tour. The margin of error is 3.1 percentage points.
In a further sign of trouble for Mr. Bush, 60% of those who consider private Social Security investments a bad idea describe their position as "completely firm." By contrast, just 31% of proponents describe themselves that way; 68% say they could yet change their minds.
Members of Congress aren't going to risk their seats with numbers like this -- Bush isn't converting people into private accounts supporters. In fact, as Marshall points out, a question in the full poll (PDF) shows an even worse trend for the president:
Please tell me which of the following approaches to dealing with Social Security you would prefer––(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?
The monthly trend between December 2004 and February 2005 for keeping the system intact is 39->44->50. Meanwhile, support for private accounts goes from 45->46->40. (Note: The margin of error is +/- 3.1%.)
In short, President Bush is dead in the water right now. Most people don't realize it yet, as Marshall points out. But it'll start to sink in soon enough.