President Reagan's proposed social security reforms have provoked a surge of anxiety among voters. Moreover, GOP officeholders are widely critical of the abrupt way the administration unveiled its proposed remedies for the ailing public retirement system -- catching Republican congressmen, as well as the public, off guard.
Unlike the carefully orchestrated White House budget triumph on Capitol Hill the week before, the administration's social security proposals "got out front" of basic political spadework, agreed more than 100 GOP senators, congressmen, and governors meeting here for the annual Tidewater Conference.
"It was a public relations disaster," said Rep. Toby Roth (R) of Wisconsin, whose congressional district and Washington offices were deluged with calls from constitutents.
"There's been a vast outpouring of concern," said Massachusetts Rep. Margaret Heckler (R). "The Congress was as unprepared as the public was."
"President Reagan should get out on television and explain it to the public," said Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa. "A public discussion of social security needs to be handled with [Reagan's] clarity, openness."
At the same time, most of these leading Republicans -- which included the House and Senate GOP leadership, three Cabinet officers, and the Republican National Committee chairman -- agreed the White House had to address the social security issue early.
"Like Ford's pardon of Nixon, it had to be done," said Rep. Richard Cheney (R) of Wyoming. "There is no good time. But now is better than next year with the 1982 elections, and better than 1983, when his popularity will have waned."
"It will cost him in the polls," said Mr. Cheney, a former White House chief of staff under President Ford. "But his personal popularity will likely hold."
Because of the social security issue and growing doubts about Reagan's tax proposals, "the high-water mark of the early Reagan euphoria" was likely reached two weeks ago with the administration's budget victory, Cheney said.
Privately, administration officials acknowledge that in advance of offering their social security proposals, they had not conducted the meticulous opinion research that underlaid Reagan's 1980 election campaign strategy and the design of his economic program. Pollsters quickly prepared a crash survey of public attitudes for the White House after the social security program was announced.
Meanwhile, an independent ABC News-Washington Post poll, released over the weekend, shows Americans ready to give the President his first major rebuff -- over social security. The survey found that respondents disapprove of the administration's plan by a 3-to-2 margin. By 2 to 1, they felt they would be hurt more than helped.
Respondents divided evenly over whether the Reagan social security reforms violated campaign pledges to protect the system. The President's popularity -- while still high with 66 percent approving his performance -- had slipped 7 percent from the ABC-Post reading a month ago. Most of the slippage came among older Americans.
Congress will feel free to do what it thinks best on social security reform, rather than feel compelled to toe the mark on the President's 13 social security proposals, says Rep. John Rousselot (R) of California. The congressman is a member of the social security subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee.
During the Republicans' debate on social security, Reagan's trade ambassador, William Brock, sought to blame the Democrats for making a "contemptible" partisan attack on the issue. But the prevailing GOP political strategy appears to be to offset criticism of the White House's abrupt handling of the issue by saddling the Democrats with responsibility for letting the social security program's situation deteriorate.
"The system's in deep, deep trouble," says Rousselot. "Congress has accelerated benefits far beyond the system's ability to pay for them. The Democrats have acted irresponsibly on social security. But it's also true we need the Democrats' help in the House, so we are making a bipartisan appeal."
Sen. Charles H. Percy (R) of Illinois suggested the public be reassured that any social security reform would undergo the full course of congressional hearings, including public and expert testimony.