Two things that will take center stage over the course of the presidential campaign will be the economy and the reconstruction of Iraq. The public is of two minds about the health of the nation’s economy. Americans feel the president has made the country weaker by his policies and the country is not as well off as before Bush took office, but they also feel that in the next six months, the economy will be getting better. The economy is more on the public’s mind than rooting out terrorism or even the ongoing fighting in Iraq. They believe the economy should be the highest priority that the Bush administration should be concentrating on. Also, the public believes the country is seriously off on the wrong track, a turnaround from where Americans thought the country was heading seven months ago when the question was asked. Perhaps because of this and the belief that the war in Iraq is not going as planned and not worth the cost of lives and the money being poured into that country, President Bush’s ratings, although still positive, have declined sharply. When asked if they were more likely to support Bush or the Democratic nominee in 2004, 38% of voters would vote for the president, while 42% of them would vote for a Democratic candidate.
A majority of Americans approve of the way George W. Bush is handling his job as president (54%), while a growing number disapprove, 41%. Since the Times Poll asked this question in April, the president’s approval rating declined by 14 points, while his negative rating climbed 13 points.
For many Americans, liking a president has different elements to it. One is liking the man, while the other is liking his policies. The Times Poll asked a four-way question getting at both of these elements. Interestingly, it shows that once feelings about personally liking the president are measured separately, more respondents say they dislike the president’s policies. More than two thirds of those surveyed say that they like Bush as a person, while 27% dislike him; 46% like Bush’s policies while almost half dislike them. There is a gender gap in how men and women perceive the president and his policies — roughly half of men interviewed like Bush’s policies while almost the same share of women dislike them. In a February Times poll, more Americans liked Bush personally (76%) as well as liked his policies (55%).
|Like Bush/like his policies||40%||51%|
|Like Bush/dislike his policies||28%||26%|
|Dislike Bush/like policies||6%||4%|
|Dislike Bush/dislike policies||20%||17%|
Personal attributes: Another way to judge how people view the president is through personal attributes — the perception of his leadership ability, where he wants to lead the country, is he honest and trustworthy, does he understand the problems of average Americans and is he concerned with all Americans equally. President Bush gets mixed grades.
First, the public is divided as to whether Bush has a good idea where he wants to lead the country (45% say yes he has a good idea vs. 49% say no, he doesn’t have a good idea). In March 2001, two months after Bush was sworn in as president the Times Poll asked this question and more Americans were optimistic about the new president and his goals. Almost three-fifths (56%) of respondents believed the president had a good idea where he wanted to lead the country at that time, only a third didn’t think that. A majority of the public (51%) in the current survey don’t think he understands the problems of people like themselves, while 42% think he does; 51% believe that he cares more about rich people than he does about poor or middle income. However, 37% believe he cares about all income groups equally.
But, two personal attributes that are important for a president to have are leadership ability and honesty. And the president has high marks in these two categories. More than three out of five surveyed (61%) say that Bush is a strong leader, while almost a third don’t feel that way. (In February 2003, a Times poll showed that 71% thought he was a strong leader.) Nearly three out of five respondents (56%) think he is honest and trustworthy, while a third don’t believe he has that attribute.
Job Ratings: Half of those surveyed disapprove of the way President Bush is handling the economy and 44% approve. In April, it was the reverse — 55% approved of the president handling this issue, while 39% disapproved. Women today are more disapproving than men. The public is also disapproving of the way Bush is handling the health care issue (50%). About three in 10 of those surveyed approved. Yet, nearly three out of five respondents approve of the way the president is handling the war on terrorism. Slightly more than a third disapprove. Men and women, independents and moderates also approve of his handling this issue.
The war in Iraq is not going as well as expected and depending on the number of casualties the American military sustain, the Bush administration may be in for some rocky times with the American people. The presidential election is still a year away and lots of things could change the dynamics of the campaigns, but this issue, along with the economy, are the ones to watch during the coming year. Three out of five respondents think the economy and jobs should get the highest priority from the Bush administration when given three choices including rooting out terrorism and continuing with the reconstruction of Iraq. Less than three in 10 said getting rid of terrorism and just 8% cited Iraqi reconstruction.
Clearly, the economy and the war in Iraq are vulnerable issues for President Bush. In the last month the nation has seen the economy recover slightly and there are indicators that the economy is turning around. But will that help unemployment? Will that help the public’s perception of the economy?
That leads to the economic issues facing the country since President Bush took office almost three years ago. The public is divided over whether the economy is doing well or badly. Half of Americans think the nation’s economy is doing well, while 49% think it is doing badly. There is a gender gap on this issue. Men think the economy is doing well (54%), while women think the opposite (54%). Majorities of independents (52%) and moderates (59%) think the economy is doing badly, as do respondents with household incomes of less than $20,000. One good sign for the president and his administration is that just 15% of all Americans expect the nation’s economy six months from now to be worse than it is today, while more than a third (35%) think it will get better.
Still another indicator that isn’t as heartening for the president is the fact that 54% of those surveyed believe that the country is not as well off financially since Bush became president, compared to 18% who think the country is better off financially and a quarter believe the country is in the same financial shape as when he took office. However, a rosier picture is seen in terms of how the respondents feel about their own financial situation since Bush took office almost three years ago. Half think they are in the same financial shape as when the president took office, while 22% say they are better off financially and 27% are not as well off financially. The wealthiest Americans — those with household incomes of more than $100,000 — say they are better off financially since Bush became president, 41%, (compared to 9% of respondents with household incomes less than $20,000 and 21% of those with household earnings of $20,000 to $40,000.)
Among those who say they are better off financially, 38% say it is a result of Bush’s economic policies (including 16% who say it is a direct result and 21% who say his policies are partly responsible). Almost three-fifths (56%) believe that they are better off for some other reason than Bush’s economic policies. On the other hand, among those who say they are not as well off financially, 61% say it is a result of Bush’s economic policies (including 34% who say it is a direct result and 27% who believe his policies are only partly responsible).
Another sign the economy could play a big role in the upcoming election is whether people perceive Bush’s policies have made the country stronger or weaker economically. Right now, 43% believe his economic policies made the country weaker. Just a quarter say it made the country stronger and about another quarter believe his policies had no effect on the country. Older men and women (45 years of age and older) say the country is weaker economically because of Bush’s policies (49% and 56% respectively), as do women in college (54%).
Tax Cuts/Budget Deficit: When respondents were asked who or what was to blame for the country moving from a $200 billion surplus to a $375 billion budget deficit, more responded that it was the aftermath of September 11 (36%) and the Iraq war (26%) than President Bush’s economic policies (22%), although the president does get some of the blame.
And more respondents say that in order to stimulate the nation’s economy, an economic agenda focused on reducing the federal deficit and paying down the debt was the more effective way (50%) than returning money to taxpayers through tax cuts (37%). This is a turnaround from when the poll asked the question in September 2002; then 45% thought tax cuts were the way to stimulate the economy and 44% thought the way to go was reducing the deficit and paying down the debt. The public feels the same way about focusing the agenda on spending for improvements to the country’s infrastructure such as roads, bridges and schools as the way to effectively stimulate the economy (58%) rather than tax cuts (34%). In February 2003, the Times Poll found that 47% preferred improvements to the infrastructure of the nation and 43% thought tax cuts were the effective way to stimulate the economy.