Two years into his presidency, George Bush receives high marks for his managing of foreign policy but poor grades on his handling of domestic problems from a public ambivalent about war and increasingly concerned about America’s ability to compete economically, a new Los Angeles Times Poll found.
As he enters what may be the defining hours of his political career, Bush remains extremely popular: 67% of those surveyed generally approved of Bush’s performance as President, and just 27% disapproved. No President since John F. Kennedy has scored so high halfway through his first term.
Although broad, the public’s approval of Bush, as measured on a report-card scale, remains qualified: His best mark, a B, comes on foreign affairs, and most of those surveyed rate his performance on the entire array of domestic concerns--from the economy to education to the environment--worthy of no higher grade than C.
For Bush, perhaps the poll’s best news is that, only a few years after he was derided as an ineffectual wimp, the public by a ratio of more than 2 to 1 now finds in him the resolute personal qualities most desired in a President: strong leadership, deep convictions and sound judgment in a crisis. Even a majority of Democrats and liberals see in Bush a strong leader with good judgment.
Perhaps the most ominous finding for the President is the widespread sense that he has shown little leadership on domestic affairs. Just 12% of Americans see any improvement in the educational system during his tenure, less than 30% perceive progress in the war against drugs and an overwhelming 72% believe that America has economically “lost ground to foreign competition” over the last two years.
Only one in eight of those polled said Bush has improved the availability of health care, and only about one in ten believes he has expanded economic opportunity for the poor. Over two-thirds of those surveyed said Bush has not redeemed his promise to make America a “kinder, gentler nation.” Just 51% said they believed Bush has “the vision to handle the country’s problems through the 1990s.”
In an abstract question with no potential opponent named, only 47% of Americans said Bush deserves to be reelected in 1992. Another 40%--including one-fifth of those who voted for him in 1988--say he should not be given another term.
The complex portrait drawn by these figures nevertheless heartens Republicans, who maintain that a President with such a high overall approval rating almost certainly would win reelection.
But Democrats see a potentially fatal combination for Bush in the growing anxiety about domestic problems and the perception that he has been too slow to deal with them. “The bottom line is it sounds to me a lot like (Mikhail S.) Gorbachev’s position in the Soviet Union,” Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg said. “Americans know Bush is good on foreign policy, but they are coming to see the country to be in serious decline, and his response to that is at best mediocre.”
Democrats and Republicans alike caution that Bush’s political fate--like the borders of the Mideast and thousands of lives on both sides of the firing line--could be abruptly reshaped in the crucible of war.
“We are dealing with maybe a 40% core that’s for Bush and maybe a 25%-30% core that’s against, and the rest is going to go up or down on the Mideast,” said Fred Steeper, who polls for the Republican National Committee. “That may lock in another 5% or 10% for him--or against him--depending on how it goes.”
The poll, supervised by assistant poll director Susan Pinkus, surveyed 2,434 adults from Tuesday through Saturday; it has a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.
The poll found Americans dividing over whether Bush deserves a second term largely along predictable lines. Nearly 70% of Republicans said he deserved a second term, but 57% of Democrats said he did not; independents, the key battleground in any presidential campaign, were evenly split.
In the poll, men supported his reelection 51% to 35%; but women, who gave Bush a majority of their votes in 1988, divided on reelection, with 45% opposing and 42% supporting a second term. Half of the whites surveyed said Bush should be reelected, but nearly three-fourths of blacks disagreed. A majority of those with family incomes below $20,000 said Bush should not be reelected, while middle-income respondents supported his reelection 48% to 39%, and those earning above $40,000 backed a second term 53% to 32%.
Vice President Dan Quayle provided Bush little help. Over two-thirds of those polled said Quayle was not qualified to serve as President, and 57%--including 56% of Republicans--said Quayle should be replaced on the GOP ticket in 1992. General impressions on Quayle split evenly, with 44% viewing him positively and 44% negatively.
Experts caution that these figures are more usefully viewed as a reflection of current opinions about Bush than as a prediction of how people will actually vote in two years. Over 50% of the public, for example, was still telling pollsters that they preferred someone other than Ronald Reagan as recently as a year before he rolled to his 49-state landslide in 1984. Polls have generally found Bush running more strongly when matched against specific Democrats, such as New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo.
But Democrats maintain the fact that less than a majority of the public supports Bush’s reelection at a time when the country naturally rallies around a President suggests that he may not be as strong as his overall approval rating indicates.
Among those who voted for Bush in 1988, the highest rate of defection occurred among women and middle-income voters. That poll finding flags another potential danger for Bush: an extensive perception that, despite his fondness for country music and horseshoes, his is a presidency attuned mostly to the gilded needs of the affluent.
Democrats stressed that charge during last fall’s barbed minuet over the federal budget, and it seems to have stuck. By 52% to 43%, those polled said Bush did not understand the problems of the average American; nearly half of those surveyed said Bush “cares more . . . about rich people,” and only about one-third maintained that he cares equally about all income groups.
GOP pollster Bill McInturff notes that Republicans always score poorly on such measures of empathy and that Reagan won his resounding reelection even though Democrats had firmly imprinted him with the Gucci label.
But McInturff acknowledges that perception may be more damaging in times of economic duress, and it seems to be a key factor in the defection of middle-class voters from Bush in the new survey. Fully two-thirds of those who backed Bush in 1988 but now say that he does not deserve another term consider him most concerned about the rich.
In the long run, more dangerous for Bush than the perception that he bends to the rich may be the larger doubts about his interest and competence in domestic affairs. Americans generally consider Bush adroit in foreign affairs: nearly two-thirds approve of his handling of the Gulf confrontation.
But the public seems somewhat uncertain about whether he is even trying to address problems at home. By nearly 7 to 2, those polled said Bush was providing more leadership than Congress on foreign policy; but, by a solid margin of 49 to 28, they said more leadership on domestic concerns was coming from Congress.
Moreover, by a ratio of nearly 2 to 1, those polled feel that Bush reacts mostly to events, rather than operating from a clearly defined agenda. That sentiment is shared by more than 80% of those who backed him in 1988 but are not now inclined to support another term. And, by an overwhelming 66% to 17%, those surveyed believe Bush is personally more interested in foreign policy than domestic concerns.
Even Republicans generally sanguine about Bush’s standing worry about the intensity of those feelings. “He has to convince people he has some sort of (domestic) program and contrast that to what the Democrats want to do,” Steeper said.
Bush has clearly won no points for the most dramatic domestic gesture of his first two years: the abandonment of his no-new-taxes pledge in last fall’s budget deal. Just 6% of those polled said the reversal would make them more likely to vote for Bush in 1992; 41% said it would make their support less likely; 49% said the switch would not affect their vote.
The reversal appears to be a major factor in peeling away support from Bush: Among those who backed him in 1988 but are not now inclined toward a second term, two-thirds say the decision to raise taxes has made them less likely to vote for Bush.
With the public holding such divergent views of Bush’s performance at home and abroad, his political fate may hinge on what matters most to Americans next year. One reason Bush’s approval rating stands so high today, analysts on both sides agree, is that the Mideast crisis has forced to the front page his strongest suit: competence in foreign affairs. Today, two-thirds of those polled say the threat of war in the Mideast is the most important problem facing the nation.
But, when asked to name the most important problem facing the nation over the next five years, the public’s agenda dramatically shifts, with 44% naming the economy.
Right now, Bush is largely seen as a bystander on the economy, with the public nearly evenly split over whether his policies have improved or worsened the situation he inherited.
But that finding may mask a deeper vulnerability: Fully half of those Americans who believe the nation has lost ground economically under Bush say he does not deserve a second term.
Historically, presidential elections turn on the economy; the exception is when they pivot on questions of war and peace. With the nation on the brink of war, and the lip of recession, George Bush at midterm, the new poll suggests, now has all his chips in the pot.