Poll Analysis: Bush's Popularity Strong While War Continues

Times Poll Director

Since the attack on the United States, September 11th, President Bush's popularity has remained strong. A new Los Angeles Times poll has the president's job approval rating steady at 86%, while only one in ten disapprove.

Almost the same share of Americans (83%) approve of the way he is handling the war in Afghanistan (with 64% saying they strongly approve). At this point, he has removed doubt as to whether he is the legitimate candidate to take on the leadership role of the world's superpower. A majority of Americans feel he is a stronger leader than they expected, while only 4% think he is weaker. Even Democrats have positive feelings toward the Republican president. (Although most subgroups give Bush "strong" approval ratings, only 23% of African Americans strongly approve of the way Bush is handling his job.)

This strong support of the president and his administration has long arms -- people are giving Bush good marks for his handling of the economy (even though most people think we are in a recession), are giving high marks to Congress handling its job and are starting to trust government to do what is right. Nearly 7 in ten Americans approve of the way Congress is handling its job (including 25% approving strongly and 43% approving somewhat), while a fifth disapprove. This is the highest rating Congress has received since The Times Poll asked the question in August '96. The only other time Congress' rating was more positive than negative was in January '98 (53% approve vs. 37% disapprove).

Trust in government has significantly declined the last thirty years (since Watergate and the Vietnam War), but this poll shows that the public is feeling considerably less cynical. The attack on the United States, the fast response from the federal government and the support of everything American has reversed the steady decline in trust. Although Americans are still slightly more distrustful than not, feelings are virtually divided. Nearly half say you can trust the government to do what is right (6% say always, 43% say some of the time), while 50% say you cannot trust the government to do what is right (42% say some of the time or 8% say hardly ever). To show this reverse, the Times Poll has tracked this question since January '91 and in those ten years, between 71% and 85% of Americans distrusted the government in Washington. Respondents living in the East and West coasts are more wary of government than those living in the Midwest or the South. Also, 71% of African Americans trust the government only some of the time or hardly ever, compared to 71% of Latinos and 50% of whites who feel the opposite. There was also a split among the elderly (65 and over) and the younger respondents (18-29). The younger group trusted government while the elderly were more distrustful.

Bush on Message

President Bush appears to be getting out the message as to why the United States is in Afghanistan and is explaining clearly to the American people about the developments here at home. Three-quarters of the public say the president has done either an excellent or good job of explaining the situation. More than a fifth say he is doing either a fair or a poor job. Once again African Americans are the president's biggest critics with 47% saying he has done an excellent (5%) or good (42%) job of explaining things, and 43% saying he has done a fair (28%) or poor (15%) job. But some admit that he is sharing too much information with the media about the war and threats here at home. A third say he is sharing too much information, while 13% say he is sharing too little. A bare majority (52%) say he is giving the right amount of information to the media. Roughly a quarter of self-described liberals feel he is not giving enough information, while on the other hand, African Americans (45%), the less affluent (39%), Democrats (37%), self-described moderates (37%), and women (36%) all think he is divulging too much. Americans are ambivalent over the media's role in balancing national security with the right of the American people to know what is going on -- either in Afghanistan, with the anthrax situation or other threats at home. Nearly half (48%) of the public think the media is behaving responsibly while the same share of Americans, 48%, think the media is behaving irresponsibly. Democrats and Republicans are on opposite sides of this issue, with 55% of Democrats believing the media is doing their job responsibly while an almost equal share of Republicans believe the opposite. More than half (53%) of self-described independents have the same feelings as Republicans on this issue, as well as nearly 3 out of 5 self-described conservatives. And roughly the same share of self-described liberals and moderates agree with Democrats -- that the media is behaving responsibly. Differences in age also plays a part in people's perception of the media's role in reporting on such delicate issues. More than half of the younger respondents believe the media is behaving responsibly while almost the identical number of elderly hold the completely opposite view.

War in Afghanistan and the Military Response

The president is also receiving strong marks on his handling the war and the anthrax situation (83% approve of his war effort, while 11% disapprove vs. 77% who approve of his handling the anthrax situation, 13% disapprove). Although African Americans give Bush positive marks for his handling the war and the anthrax situation, this group gives him higher negative ratings than other racial or ethnic groups -- 30% of African Americans disapprove of his handling the war effort and 31% disapprove of his handling the anthrax situation.

Almost 9 out of ten surveyed support the attacks in Afghanistan. And among those supporting the attacks, 78% say they will support them as long as it takes and 73% will support the attacks even at the expense of substantial U.S. troop casualties. There is a lot of patriotism in the country today and strong support of the men and women in the military. The nation has little doubt that the military will wage a successful campaign against the Taliban government in Afghanistan. Seven out of ten respondents say they have a lot of confidence in the U.S.' success and 23% have some confidence. But their unwavering confidence is not as strong when asked if Osama bin Laden will be captured or killed. More than a third of Americans have a lot of confidence that Bin Laden will either be captured or killed, 41% say only some confidence, 15% don't have too much confidence and 6% have no confidence in getting the most wanted terrorist in the world. The Bush Administration has been preparing the American people for a war that might last a long time. And they are saying, even if Bin Laden is captured, that isn't the end of the war on terrorism. So it is no surprise when the results of the poll showed that 24% of the public believe the U.S. military attacks on Afghanistan will last a year and 31% say it will take longer than that.

Government's Role

Earlier Times' polls have shown that the American people want a smaller government with fewer services than a larger government with more services. To illustrate this, in a poll taken in March, 59% said they wanted smaller government, while 29% wanted a larger government role. This poll shows that also, but fewer people are declaring that they want smaller government. Nearly half say they want less government intrusion, while 41% want the government to be more involved.

Although 48% of the public say they want smaller government, they are inclined to approve of some government involvement. For example, 89% would approve of extending unemployment benefits to people who lost their jobs because of the September 11th attack, 61% would also approve of a tax rebate to low income taxpayers who didn't receive the first rebate, 53% approve of an airline industry bailout from the federal government and 48% would approve of an income tax cut for corporations. The poll shows some ideological fissures that might hamper reinvigorating the economy. These partisan disputes could matter in the 2002 elections. Nearly two thirds of Republicans approve of cutting the corporate income tax rate, while only 40% of Democrats agree with that. Nearly two thirds of Democrats approve of a tax rebate to low income taxpayers who didn't receive one the first time, while just half of Republicans agree with that. However, 87% of Republicans and 93% of Democrats approve of extending unemployment benefits to workers who lost their job either due to the September 11th attack or its aftermath.

How the Poll Was Conducted

The Times Poll contacted 1,995 Americans nationwide by telephone Nov. 10-13. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the nation. Random-digit dialing techniques were used so that listed and unlisted numbers could be contacted. The entire sample was weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age, education and region. The margin of sampling error for the entire sample is plus or minus 3 percentage points. For certain subgroups the error margin may be somewhat higher. Poll results can also be affected by other factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented.

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