WASHINGTON – The heart of President Bush's plan for Social Security (search), allowing younger workers to create personal accounts in exchange for a lower guaranteed government benefit, is among the least popular elements with the public, Republican pollsters told House GOP (search) leaders Tuesday.
The pollsters also stressed the political stakes involved in pursuing Bush's plan to overhaul the Depression-era program, according to a memo circulated at a session in the Capitol.
Older voters consider a candidate's views on Social Security to be "as important, or in some cases, more important than issues like the war, health care and education," they wrote.
Reporting on the results of 14 focus groups held last month in scattered locations, the memo said Bush has been successful in raising awareness of Social Security's financial situation. It also credited the administration with having done a "very good job" of emphasizing that current and near retirees would not be affected by his plan.
At the same time, the public "knows little or nothing about the details and specifics" of Bush's proposal for individual accounts, "and a good bit of what they think they know is incorrect," it said.
The focus groups, as well as earlier nationwide polling, were paid for by the National Republican Congressional Committee (search), the campaign arm of the House GOP. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the memo.
Unlike a poll that may survey hundreds of people, a focus group involves a moderator leading a discussion. The participants are chosen for different characteristics such as age, gender and voting behavior.
According to the memo, Americans of all age groups "were most resistant to proposals that involved cutting or reducing benefits or raising Social Security payroll taxes.
"When forced to choose a course of action, a majority ... chose raising the age of early retirement, and there was also support for further reducing starting benefits for early retirement."
Despite the general resistance to higher taxes, there is very strong support for exposing higher levels of income to the existing levy, the pollsters wrote.
Asked what they liked least, 31 percent of the participants in the sessions mentioned that the government would be responsible for keeping track of the accounts. Another 24 percent "least liked the fact that workers would be required to accept a lower traditional benefit in return for participation," a key element of Bush's plan.
The findings surfaced on the eve of a House Ways and Means Committee (search) hearing into Social Security's finances and as the administration pushes ahead with an aggressive campaign to raise public support for changes.
At the same time, some Republicans have begun to step forward with variations on Bush's theme, in hopes of beginning a process that can coax Democrats into negotiations.
Congressional Democrats have so far maintained nearly unanimous opposition to the president's plan, accusing Bush of seeking to privatize the program and pay for it by cutting benefits.
The president asked Congress in his State of the Union address to overhaul the program, saying he wanted a bill that both made it permanently solvent and included personal accounts.
Under the president's approach, Social Security would remain unchanged for retirees and workers age 55 and over.
Younger workers would have the option of investing a portion of their payroll taxes on their own and would receive a lower guaranteed government benefit when they retire. Supporters of the plan argue that earnings on the investments would make up the difference.
Republican officials briefed by White House aides have said even younger Americans who decide not to establish a private account would receive a lower government guaranteed benefit.