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Poll suggests skepticism on Bush Social Security overhaul

Many uncertain on merits of plan

WASHINGTON -- President Bush has wide support for his argument that Social Security needs dramatic change in order to meet its obligations to future retirees, but there remains considerable skepticism about his plan to let people invest a portion of their contribution to the program in the stock market, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Since his Nov. 2 reelection victory, Bush has frequently said the results were an endorsement by voters for the most dramatic overhaul of the retirement program since its inception nearly 70 years ago. But the survey shows that his efforts to educate the public about the idea and persuade them of the merits are at best incomplete.

Sixty-three percent do not believe Social Security will have enough money to pay the benefits they are entitled to, and 74 percent believe the system faces either major problems or is in crisis -- as Bush has asserted. The president also has won 53 percent of the public to at least general support for the concept of letting individuals take control of some of their contributions to invest themselves in the market.

It is on the specifics that the president faces problems. Support dropped to an even split when people were told that transition costs to a new program could reach a total of $2 trillion over time, as some forecasts project. And 62 percent said they would not wish to participate in such a program if it meant their benefits would go up or down depending on their performance of their stock picks -- which is the essence of Bush's plan.

The results cast uncertainty not just on Bush's political strategy but also that of Democrats. In Congress, the opposition party has not yet unified around a position on what promises to be the dominant domestic issue of Bush's second term. The party, according to members of Congress and Democratic policy aides, faces a choice between opposing Bush's plan wholesale on philosophical grounds, or critiquing it on practical merits.

Representative Rahm Emanuel, Democrat of Illinois, has endorsed individual investment accounts, but as a supplement to Social Security that leaves the traditional benefit intact.

''The best critique is a plan of our own rather than a defense of the status quo, and our plan must reveal the weaknesses in Bush's own plan," he said.

Some other Democrats have suggested the status quo is not quite so worrisome as Bush has asserted.

After Bush said at a news conference Monday said a ''crisis is here," House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, Democract of California, objected, citing studies that Social Security could stay solvent for decades with no changes.

The survey was conducted Dec. 16-19 among 1,004 randomly selected adults nationwide and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

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