WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's apparent willingness to consider cuts in Social Security benefits may be winning him points with Washington elites, but it's killing him with voters, who see the program as inviolate and may start to wonder what the Democratic Party stands for, if not for Social Security.
That's the conclusion of three top progressive pollsters who spoke to reporters Wednesday at a briefing sponsored by the Economic Policy Institute, the Century Foundation and Demos.
"For the public, cutting benefits is the problem, not the solution," said Guy Molyneux, a partner at Hart Research Associates.
As a result, the pollsters said that any Democrat seeking elected office in 2012 should be begging Obama not to say anything about Social Security cuts in his State of the Union address later this month.
A post-election poll by Celinda Lake's Lake Research Partners found that, by a margin of 3 percentage points, Americans now trust Republicans in Congress more than Democrats when it comes to Social Security -- surely the first time since the program became a signature issue for the Democratic Party in the 1930s.
The poll found confidence in Democrats on the issue dropping 14 points just since January 2007, accompanied by a 13-point increase for Republicans.
The public favors congressional Republicans over Obama on Social Security by an even larger 6-point margin. Obama's 26-percent rating is not only less than half Bill Clinton's (53 percent), it's even lower than that of George W. Bush (37 percent), whose proposal to privatize the program went down in flames.
It's hard to overstate how shocking this new dynamic is. In the two previous low points for Democrats -- June 1995 and April 2002 -- Democrats still had a 10-point advantage on Social Security.
That the public would trust Republicans more on this issue was, until recently, inconceivable.
The pollsters had no doubt that the turnaround stems from statements by Obama and other Democratic leaders expressing their openness to cuts in Social Security. "It's the rhetoric that says things like, 'Everything is on the table,'" said Lake. "That's not how the public feels. This isn't a policy debate in the public's mind, this is a core value."
When Democrats say they're open to cuts in Social Security, some voters are less drawn to the party, said Stan Greenberg of Democracy Corps.
"This is central to what Democrats do," he said. "Once you pull back on that, what is it that Democrats believe in, that you want them in office at a time like this?"
And it takes away one of the most potent Democratic arguments against Republicans. Historical GOP hostility to Social Security, Greenberg said, "is a critical part of their vulnerability."
Greenberg said his surveys show that even in the context of deficit reduction, cutting Social Security benefits is hugely unpopular. "There is no stomach for bringing Social Security in any way into this debate, and it fundamentally damages progressives and Democrats if they bring Social Security into it," he said.
"It's a great way to really solidify our losses," Lake said.
The pollsters also noted a huge disconnect between the inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom that the deficit must be addressed through entitlement cuts and what voters think.
"Usually, Beltway conventional wisdom is about 95 percent wrong, plus or minus 5 percent," Lake said. "On Social Security, it's about 105 percent wrong."
"When it comes to Social Security," said Molyneux , "opinion elites are from Mars. Voters are from Venus."
Heather McGee, the director of Demos' Washington office, said that when Democrats talk of cutting Social Security, it only serves to support the narrative that the government is to blame for the nation's economic problems. "Bashing government is a way to shift attention from the decline of the middle class and widening inequality," she said.
And while increasing the Social Security retirement age is considered a fairly benign change inside the Beltway, 7 in 10 voters oppose the idea, most of them very intensely, said Lake. Opposition is particularly strong among such groups as young voters, women under 55, non-college graduates, independent women and rural voters -- in other words, those much sought-after swing voters.
"That reflects the different life experiences of those who have this debate versus those who will be affected by the policy outcomes," Molyneux said.
Raising the retirement age means workers would either have to work longer to receive their full benefits, or see those benefits cut.
"Raising the retirement age is a great thing for wealthy professionals, and a terrible thing for low-income women and working men," said EPI's Ross Eisenberry.
It's easy for professionals to imagine working a few extra years; much harder for people whose jobs are physically demanding or highly unpleasant.
Young voters are traditionally considered the most likely to support changes in Social Security due to fears that it won't be there when they retire. "But nobody told them they're supposed to relish working a couple more years in this economy," Lake said. They also don't want older workers hoard the good jobs for even longer, she said.
Molyneux recalled how poorly George W. Bush's 2005 push to privatize Social Security fared. The public will be even less receptive to the new proposed changes, he said, because at least Bush's plan had a theoretical upside: a private account one could invest in the stock market.
"What Democrats appear to be talking about here is a pure pain plan," Molyneux said. "So while the benefit cuts are less severe, there are also less offsetting goodies."
The pollsters did not agree on the value of proposing a progressive solution to Social Security's long-term budget shortfall, independent of the deficit debate. Such a solution could include raising the cap that currently excludes income over $106,800 from the payroll tax, reducing benefits for the wealthy and increasing benefits for the poor.
"I do think that progressives would benefit by addressing the question," said Greenberg. Despite the facts to the contrary, he said, "people do think it's in trouble."
But Lake said any proposal to change the fundamental deal is risky. "I think that once you open it up, you could be more easily perceived as violating the promise," she said.
And anyway, the point is moot for now. "What I cannot imagine is doing that sort of a deal with the current Republican Congress," said Molyneux. "Maybe in another universe."
Lake said her research shows that the messages that resonate most with voters reflect the attitude that Social Security belongs to the people and represents a promise that must be protected. Those messages include the following:
Social Security moneys belong to the people who have worked hard all their lives and contributed to the program, not to the government. We must protect Social Security from cuts that will hurt beneficiaries, we cannot let Congress try to use Social Security as a piggy bank.
Social Security has a funding gap in the future and that gap needs to be closed. The disagreement in Washington is what to do about it. The answer is pretty clear: The federal government has to pay back the $2.6 trillion it took from the Social Security trust fund. Before Congress even thinks about cutting Social Security benefits, the government must pay back the money it owes the trust fund. We cannot accept that the government has the money to bail out Wall Street banks, but not to pay back Social Security.
Social Security is a promise made to all generations to provide a basic and reliable income for when they retire, become widowed or disabled, or leave loved ones behind. Americans need to know the promise of Social Security will continue to be met for them. This is one promise we cannot allow Congress to break. We need to make sure we continue to support Social Security without making cuts that will harm current and future generations
Washington should be thinking about getting Americans back to work, protecting Americans from predatory lenders and changing unscrupulous business practices on Wall Street. We shouldn't expect middle and low income Americans, in the middle of the largest recession since the 1930's, to have their Social Security cut. We should ask Wall Street bankers to give back their bonuses and we should put a tax on 39 Wall Street, not cut Social Security benefits.
Dan Froomkin is senior Washington correspondent for the Huffington Post. You can send him an e-mail, bookmark his page; subscribe to his RSS feed, follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, and/or become a fan and get e-mail alerts when he writes.