Poll Analysis: State of Union Speech Changes Few Minds About Iraq

of the Times Poll

A State of the Union address by the President of the United States is given to Congress and the American people to review the previous year’s progress on public policy issues and to also state what to expect in the coming year. This year was no exception. Although domestic policy was part of the president’s first half of the speech (i.e., accelerating tax cuts, redesigning Medicare and advocating faith based organizations as a way to give to charity and volunteerism), Iraq and the possibility of war, including the alleged nuclear weapons buildup in North Korea and terrorism, overshadowed the domestic issues, according to a new Los Angeles Times poll.

A graphic that ran with a Times poll article in Tuesday's Section A gave the wrong Web address for additional information. The correct address is www.latimes.com/timespoll.

Americans listened carefully to President Bush, waiting to be convinced that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that there is a direct link between Saddam Hussein and the terrorist organization, Al Qaeda. They didn’t believe the president made the case to go to war and they also didn’t believe that the UN weapons inspectors’ report had given them sufficient evidence either. The nation is ambivalent about the prospects of another war in the Persian Gulf. But one thing is certain—if Americans were convinced that Iraq and its leader, Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, they would support the president’s position for going to war.

Domestically, President Bush will have a tougher time getting the nation behind his agenda. The respondents surveyed were more inclined to support a tax plan proposed by House Democrats over President Bush’s. The public is more interested in focusing the economic agenda on spending for improvements to the country’s infrastructure than returning money back to taxpayers through tax cuts. The president knows very well that a perceived poor economy by the public is not in his best interest. He saw first hand the negative impact it had on his father, former president, George H.W. Bush. The public thought the elder president was out of step with the country. Clinton’s slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid” was the drumbeat that eventually helped the Democratic challenger beat the Republican incumbent. Most Americans are saying that the nation’s economy is doing poorly and it is being reflected in the president’s job performance ratings on the economy and in his job performance overall.

President’s Job Approval Ratings

Overall Rating: Many media and private polls are showing George W. Bush’s job approval rating declining over the last couple of months. And this poll is no exception. Fifty six percent of Americans approve of the way the president is handling his job, while 39% disapprove. This is a decline of seven points since only mid December 2002 when a Times poll showed Mr. Bush at 63% (a third disapproved). This result is similar to his job performance rating before September 11th 2001, but the lowest since the Times started tracking his job rating. (In April 2001 he received a 57% positive job rating.) Interestingly, when respondents were asked why they approved of the president’s job performance, more respondents cited personal attributes rather than any policy issue. Three out of 10 mentioned his strong leadership abilities and 15% cited his trustworthiness. Only 3% mentioned his tax cuts and 3% cited his economic package. When asked why they disapproved of Bush’s performance, most respondents cited issues, such as 40% said war with Iraq/rush to war with Iraq, 12% cited his economic package, 11% said handling of the war on terrorism and Al Qaeda and 10% suggested foreign policy in general.

Economy: His job performance on economic issues has declined since the Times poll asked this question in December. In this poll, by 47% to 45%, Americans are now somewhat divided. (In December 51% approved, while 43% disapproved.)

The economy in general is perceived as not doing well. Half of the respondents interviewed said that the country is seriously off on the wrong track, while almost two out of five believe it is going in the right direction. This is slightly worse than when respondents were asked the question in December (44% right direction and 47% wrong track). Nearly half of the public say that the economy is the most important problem facing the country today, outstripping the possibility of war and terrorism in the nation (40% mention Iraq and 14% cite terrorism). Along with these results, almost two thirds of the nation believe the economy is doing badly and 44% think the economy is only going to get worse. Thirteen percent think the economy is getting better and 42% say it is about the same. No matter if respondents were poor or affluent, they feel the same way about how the country is doing. More than three out of five respondents in each economic class think the economy is doing badly. However, there are differences when respondents were asked about their own personal finances. More than six out of 10 respondents with household income less than $20,000 say there personal finances are shaky compared to 42% who have income between $20,000 and $40,000; 28% with income between $40,000 and $60,000 and a fifth who have household earnings of more than $60,000.

Federal Budget: The federal budget is just one more economic issue. And once again, there is tepid support for the president’s handling of the budget. The budget is in a huge deficit and there is a possibility that money in the Social Security system will have to be used to prop up the budget. Forty-two percent say they approve of the president’s handling of the federal budget, while another 43% disapprove. However, this does not bode well for Mr. Bush. In an August ’02 Times poll, nearly half approved of his performance in handling the federal budget, while 37% disapproved. Men and women in this poll are also split on his handling of the federal budget, while independents and moderates disapprove. The divide between economic status is also there. Households with income less than $20,000 disapprove of President Bush’s job performance on the budget (56%), while a plurality of households with earnings of more than $60,000 give him a positive rating (47%), albeit a mild one. The younger respondents (18–29) disapprove of the president’s job performance on this issue (48%).

Environment: Although President Bush is perceived as not environmentally friendly (not signing the Kyoto Treaty on global warming, rescinding some of Clinton’s environmental laws, wanting to open up Alaska to oil drilling), more people approve of his handling the environment than disapprove (48%–30). Not surprisingly, Democrats and liberals disapprove, while pluralities of independents and self-described moderates barely approve (45% and 43%, respectively).

Terrorism: Since September 11, President Bush has gotten very high marks for his handling terrorism in the nation. And he still does. Almost three-quarters of Americans approve of his job performance in handling terrorism, while 22% disapprove. Right after 9/11, 86% of Americans in a September ’01 Times poll gave him positive ratings for this issue. His high marks on this cross political party lines and political ideology (from liberals to conservatives).

Iraq and Saddam Hussein: Nearly three out of five Americans approve of the way George W. Bush is handling the situation with Saddam Hussein in Iraq, while 38% disapprove. Virtually all Republicans are solidly behind Bush on this (74% approve strongly), while 59% of Democrats and 63% of self-described liberals disapprove. More men than women also approve (65%, 50% respectively). A majority of Americans (55%) trust that George W. Bush will make the right decision about Iraq. Women are not entirely convinced of that—49% trust him to do the right thing, while 43% don’t.

North Korea: Not as many respondents approve of the president’s handling the situation in North Korea as they do his job performance on Iraq. Nearly half (48%) approve of his job performance in working with North Korea, while 29% disapprove. There was, however, a larger undecided on this—23%.

Health Care: The president’s State of the Union address did not resonate with the American people as he hoped it would in terms of getting support for his agenda on health care and Medicare. Forty-five percent of the public disapprove of his job handling the cost and availability of health care, while 40% approve. Independents and moderates disapprove (45%, 52% respectively). The elderly are more disapproving (43%) than approving (38%). Nearly half of the baby boomers disapprove of his handling this issue.

Energy: Forty-five percent of Americans approve of his handling of the energy situation, while a third disapprove. Almost a quarter are not sure. Moderates are divided over this issue, while independents marginally approve.

Personal Attributes of the President: Perhaps because of 9/11 and his handling of terrorism and his leadership after the tragedy, 71% of Americans believe that Bush is a strong and decisive leader (even 55% of liberals think that and Democrats are virtually split); almost seven in 10 believe he is good in a crisis (Democrats and liberals also think this).

Although Mr. Bush gets high marks on most personal attributes, these ratings decline slightly when asked about caring about people like you and sharing the public’s values. More than half (54%) of respondents say that President Bush cares about people like themselves and nearly six out of 10 (58%) respondents say that the president shares the same values as they do (moderates and independents think that as well).

The Times Poll started asking the following question during the Clinton administration (mainly because of the impeachment trial and the president’s character flaws) and it clearly shows that people have different opinions about how they feel about the president and his policies and how they feel toward him as a person. During the Clinton era, a Times poll in September ’00 showed that a third of registered voters liked Clinton as a person, but 65% disliked him personally. However, the reverse happened when asked about his policy. Sixty-one percent said they liked Clinton’s policies, while 37% disliked them. This didn’t change much even during the impeachment trial. Now in this current poll about President Bush, it is very evident that Bush is a much more likable president. Three quarters of the American people like Bush personally and just 21% dislike him. But more people dislike his policies than they did Clinton’s. Fifty-five percent of those surveyed like Bush’s policies while 42% dislike them. The likability factor plus the horrific tragedy of 9/11 have helped Bush push through some of his agenda and show him as a decisive and strong leader. There wasn’t much expectation from this president, but people feel he grew into the job.

“I like GW Bush as a person and I alsolike most of his policies” 51%“I like GW Bush as a person but I don’tlike most of his policies” 26%“I don’t like GW Bush as a person, but Ido like most of his policies” 4%“I don’t like GW Bush and I also don’tlike most of his policies” 17%

War in Iraq

The notion that the U.S. could possibly enter into a war with Iraq is being followed closely by virtually all Americans (89%). The only other story that the Times Poll asked about that has gotten more attention was the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11 (98% followed that story closely). The public is divided over whether we are winning the war on terrorism, as President Bush declared in his State of the Union address. By a plurality of 47% to 43%, Americans disagree.

Although, there is growing concern for the possibility of military action against Iraq and a reluctance to go to war, more than seven out of 10 Americans are saying that military action with Iraq and Saddam Hussein is an inevitability. More than a fifth say it will probably happen and just 1% are saying it definitely won’t.

President Bush, they believe, has not made a clear, convincing case to go to war. (After his State of the Union address, only 9% said they changed their minds and would now support military action.) He also didn’t convince the nation that there is a link between Saddam Hussein and the Al Qaeda terrorist organization. Almost three-fifths (56%) say that the president didn’t provide enough evidence to link the two, while a third thought he did.

Almost two-thirds of the public agree that the U.S. should take military action against Iraq only if the U.S. had the support of the United Nations Security Council. Republicans were one of the only groups that disagreed with this statement. Even conservatives who are very loyal to Mr. Bush don’t want to go to war unless there is international consent. However, there is mild support if some allies like Great Britain supported the U.S. in its desire to take military action against Iraq even if the UN Security Council opposed it. Fifty-one percent would support military action if the U.S. had support of some allies, while a sizeable minority, 43%, opposed such a move. The younger respondents, 18–29 years old are opposed to only some support without UN approval (52%) while the elderly are split (45% each). Self-described moderates are also split (49% support, 48% oppose). There is a 19 point difference between men (61%) and women (42%) supporting this type of scenario.

Showing the same caution about sending U.S. troops in harms way, nearly three out of five respondents don’t believe there is sufficient evidence in the U.N. weapons inspectors’ report to warrant a military action against Iraq. And they are willing to wait weeks, months or as long as needed to find some incriminating evidence to convince them to go into war mode. More than a quarter would wait up to a few weeks more for U.N. weapons inspectors to continue their jobs, 16% would wait up to a few months and 19% would wait as long as necessary. About a fifth say the military should act now and 12% believe the U.S. should not take any military action at all. Americans are not wont to go to war. More than three-fifths would rather Saddam Hussein go into exile than begin military action against his country.

Yet, if the country were to go to war, 57% would support a military ground troop attack against Iraq (including 40% who strongly support it). There is a large gender gap—with men strongly supporting a ground attack (65%) while women are divided as to their feelings about war (49% support, 45% oppose). Not surprising, younger respondents (18–29 years old) are opposed to a ground attack against Iraq.

An overwhelming response from those surveyed want Hussein removed from power even if the U.N. weapons inspectors find no evidence of weapons of mass destruction. Most demographic groups concur with this statement.

Anti-War Demonstrations: Most people at this point in time are not participating in any anti-war demonstrations. Three percent surveyed say they have participated in a demonstration and 7% said they knew of people who did. Nearly three in 10 say that they agree with the demonstrators’ views on the impending military action and they feel comfortable with them protesting, 12% agree with the anti-war views, but don’t believe protesting is okay, 36% disapprove of anti-war sentiment, but they feel okay with the demonstrations and 18% disapprove of both the views of the demonstrators and their right to protest. Put another way, 40% agree with the demonstrators’ views on a possible war with Iraq while 54% disagree with their views. Nearly two-thirds believe the protesters have the right to demonstrate, while 30% don’t.

North Korea

Less than 60% of the nation is following closely the news about North Korea’s possible resumption of its nuclear program and its withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. A plurality of Americans (43%) do not want the U.S. to take military action against North Korea even if diplomacy fails and the North Koreans will not allow U.N. weapons inspectors back into the country to monitor if they are building up their nuclear arsenal. Most groups agree that they don’t want any military action with this country, except Republicans and the younger group. Nearly half of Republicans and 53% of the 18–29 year old group say the U.S. should take military action. Moderates are tilting toward military action by 42% to 39%. Conservatives are leaning against military action by 42% to 38%.

State Of The Union Speech

Just over half of the country’s adults said they watched or listened to President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address to Congress on January 28th and two thirds said they’d either watched or heard about it afterward, indicating a high rate of national interest in the President’s words. Last year, 56% told a Times poll that they’d either followed the speech, or heard about it later.

If one of the President’s goals for the speech was to sway the country to his view that military action is likely to be necessary in Iraq, it may not have succeeded as well as he might have hoped. Just under one in ten said they had been swayed by the President’s arguments and now favored military action against Saddam Hussein when they had not favored it before, including 7% of those who lean toward the Democrats, and 15% of self-identified Republicans. More than four in five said they had not been swayed one way or the other by the President’s arguments.

A majority of Americans said they thought the President would be able to accomplish at least some of the goals laid out in his speech. The poll shows, however, that the country is slightly more skeptical about Bush’s ability to accomplish his goals than it was last year. At that time three in four said they thought he’d accomplish at least some of his goals and only two in ten doubted that he could. This year, two in three felt the president could follow through, compared to three in ten who did not.

In his speech, along with his view of the situation with Iraq, President Bush also outlined a plan which included tax cuts and other incentives meant to stimulate growth in the nation’s economy. About six in ten nationwide thought the plan might be successful, including just over one in ten who said the plan would be “very effective” in helping to improve the economy, and just under half (48%) who said the plan would be “somewhat effective.” About a third thought it would not be very effective at all. Nearly six in ten Democrats dismissed the plan’s positive effect on the economy and 88% of Republicans said it would be at least somewhat effective. Independents were more divided 52% effective to 40% ineffective

The Partisan Tax Plans

Poll respondents were read a description of the President’s tax plan as well as a description of an alternative plan proposed by House Democrats. Americans did not confer overwhelming approval on either plan, but the Democrats’ plan was received slightly more favorably than the President’s plan by the public, and an eight percentage point plurality said they thought the Democrats’ plan would do a better job of stimulating the economy.

The President’s plan includes restructuring the income tax rates, raising the per child tax credit, reducing income taxes for married couples, allowing deduction of charitable donations, eliminating federal income taxes on stock dividends and accelerating the future tax cuts already approved. Overall 48% said they were in favor of the plan (including 85% of Republicans, 48% of Independents, and 21% of Democrats) while 41% were opposed.

The Democrats’ plan includes an extension of unemployment benefits to 26 weeks, tax rebates, allowing small businesses to double their tax deductions to allow for new investment, reinstatement of the estate tax, and elimination of Social Security taxation on the first $10,000 of income. It would also provide state and local money to help defray the costs of homeland security and infrastructure development. Over half—54% said they favored this plan, while 31% did not. Seven in ten Democrats, 58% of Independents and 31% of Republicans gave it a thumbs-up.

When asked which plan would be better for stimulating the economy, 44% chose the Democrats’ plan, 36% pointed to Bush’s plan and another two in ten weren’t sure. The Democrats’ focus on infrastructure spending may be helping their plan’s popularity—by a narrow plurality of 47% to 43%, Americans indicated that they think infrastructure spending is more effective than tax cuts as a means of economic stimulus. In addition, six in ten Americans see the Bush tax cuts as benefiting the rich, compared with 24% who said the middle class would be helped and 4% who think it will benefit the poor. By comparison, only 15% thought the House Democrats’ tax plan would benefit the rich, 43% said it would be best for the middle classes, and 24% said it was aimed at the poor.

While tax cuts are popular among Republicans, six in ten of those who identify with that party join with 92% of Democrats and 83% of independents to make eight in ten Americans overall who do not want to see tax cuts made if they come at the expense of Social Security.

Other Bush Proposals

Alaskan Arctic Wildlife Refuge: Americans continue to be deeply divided over the proposal to open up the Alaskan Arctic Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration. Two previous Times Poll surveys—in March 2001 and February 2002—found the country divided. This most recent survey finds a similar 47% to 43% divide. One in ten aren’t sure.

This issue divides sharply along partisan lines, with nearly three in five Democrats opposing it, more than three out of four Republicans supporting it, and a plurality of independents opposed by 48% to 42%.

Private Social Security Accounts: In a Times survey taken a year ago, Americans were deeply split 48% approve to 44% disapprove on a Bush proposal to divert some Social Security funds into private stock market accounts. With the Enron business scandals of one year ago fading into history against the current drama of possible war with Iraq, this survey found over half of the public (54%) now approve of the idea of private stock market accounts while 40% oppose it.

However, when those who approve of the plan were asked if they still would approve of it if it meant a reduction in the guaranteed benefit retirees receive through the Social Security system, only half would continue to do so in that case. Put another way, only 27% of Americans approved of the president’s plan to divert some retirement funds into private accounts if that would mean reductions in the guaranteed benefit through the Social Security system.

Medicare Prescription Drug Plan: Of all of Bush’s proposals, one option for adding a prescription drug plan for the elderly proved most unpopular. Under a plan currently being proposed by the White House, seniors who want prescription drug coverage would be forced to join private HMOs. Supporters say the government can’t afford a prescription drug plan for all seniors, and this would provide coverage while saving the government money. Opponents would like to see prescription drug coverage added to the traditional Medicare plan which would allow seniors to keep their family doctors. Fewer than three in ten Americans support Bush’s HMO plan, while 57% oppose it. More than a third strongly oppose the plan, including 50% of Democrats, 45% of independents, and 13% of Republicans. Support is strongest among Republicans and people who are younger than 44. Nearly seven in ten of those over 65 oppose the plan to give a drug benefit only to seniors who move into managed care.

Federal Funding For Faith Based Programs, Partial Birth Abortion, and Cloning: While nearly three in five opposed Bush’s Medicare plan, about that same proportion favored the federal funding of programs like day care and drug rehabilitation programs run by churches and other faith-based organizations. Democrats, whose party leaders have expressed concern over blurring the separation of church and state, were split 46% favor to 46% oppose on this one, along with independents who gave the idea a narrow plurality of support of 49% to 44%, but Republicans were overwhelmingly for it at 73% to only 24% opposed.

Anti-abortion activists have long targeted partial birth abortion as a first step in the process of banning all abortions for the simple reason that the procedure is not popular with anyone. Majorities in all parties favor an outright ban on the procedure which takes place in the last six months of a pregnancy. Nearly four in ten oppose such a ban.

The issues of human cloning is a complicated one and generally speaking, the public would favor placing limits on the procedure. Forty-three percent said they support an all-out ban on research into human cloning, 41% favor a ban which would still allow for research on cloned embryos to learn more about diseases, while only 11% said they oppose any ban on research into human cloning.

How the Poll Was Conducted

The Times Poll contacted 1,385 Americans nationwide by telephone Jan. 30–Feb. 2. 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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