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Economic Jitters an Albatross for Bush

Times Staff Writer

All year long, in speeches and briefings and visits to factories and shops, President Bush and his aides have tried to convince Americans that the economy is in good shape -- and that the president deserves some credit for that.

That effort is not making much headway, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll has found.

Americans are closely divided on whether the economy is in good shape, with 50% saying it is doing well and 47% saying it is doing badly, the poll found. In January, when Bush launched his campaign to spread good news, the national mood was slightly better: In a Times Poll that month, 55% said the economy was doing well.

And Bush doesn’t get much credit for the economy’s relative health, the new survey found. Of respondents, 39% say they approve of the president’s handling of the economy and 19% say they think the economy is better because of his policies -- numbers that are basically unchanged since the beginning of the year.

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People questioned in the poll cited several reasons for their gloomy views, but two were mentioned most frequently: fears of higher unemployment, and the high price of gasoline and other fuels.

About six of every 10 respondents said they considered Bush at least partly responsible for the high price of gasoline; almost six in 10 said their families had cut back on spending in other areas because of the cost of fuel.

“I think the economy could be doing better, and I think it reflects on Bush,” said Carol Testa, 50, a sixth-grade teacher in Milford, N.J., who said she was a registered Republican and voted for the president in 2000 and 2004. “I’m disappointed in him.

“I make a good salary and so does my husband,” she said. “He’s a dentist, and he has more patients than he can handle ... [but] I’m worried about my kids.”

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Christopher Harris, another Republican voter, said he was disappointed in the president’s performance too.

“I have been a Bush supporter going back a long way, but there are a lot of things I’m not happy about,” said Harris, 36, a telecommunications equipment salesman who lives near Raleigh, N.C.

“The economy just feels uneasy to me. I see waves of business, and then it drops back off,” he said. “A lot of my customers have moved business offshore.... I think there’s been a lack of attention to the economy because of the Iraq situation.”

The Times/Bloomberg poll interviewed 1,321 adults nationwide between Saturday and Tuesday under the supervision of Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus.

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The survey’s margin of sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points.

Testa’s comments were indicative of the poll’s findings that even some people who are doing well are worried about the economy.

Among all respondents, two-thirds described their personal finances as “secure” -- but within that group, 36% said the economy was doing badly and 48% approved of Bush’s handling of economic affairs.

Among those who describe their finances as “shaky,” 77% say they disapprove of the president’s performance on the economy.

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The findings suggest that there isn’t much Bush can do to improve his standing on these issues in the short run because unemployment is low by historical standards and the price of energy is largely beyond the president’s control.

The national unemployment rate has been steadily declining over the last three years, from 6.3% in June 2003 to 4.6% last month, the lowest rate since 2001.

Bush notes the economy’s health almost every time he speaks on domestic issues -- most recently on Tuesday, when he told a conservative conference: “We’re the envy of the industrialized world

But administration officials have expressed frustration at the difficulty of gaining widespread public credit for the economy’s strengths in the face of high gasoline prices -- a basic economic reality that confronts drivers every day.

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“Higher energy prices do make it more difficult for people to feel like the economy is doing well,” Dan Bartlett, one of Bush’s top aides, said Wednesday.

He added that the war in Iraq “also makes it difficult for people to feel optimistic about the overall economy. The administration will continue to press the case.”

Attitudes about Bush’s share of responsibility for the high price of energy appear to be partly a matter of politics: 82% of Democrats said they considered the president at least partly to blame, while 62% of independents and 29% of Republicans gave the same answer.

People with a college education split evenly on that question; among respondents with less than a college education, two-thirds said Bush was at least partly responsible for the high price of gas.

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Approval of Bush’s economic policies has barely budged since the beginning of the year. In January’s Times Poll, 37% of respondents said they approved of the president’s handling of the economy; this month, 39% approved.

The difference of 2% is within the poll’s margin of error and, as a result, not statistically significant, Pinkus said.

Economists say the public mood isn’t merely a political problem for the president and his Republican Party as midterm congressional elections approach; it also suggests a continued slowdown in consumer spending.

“Consumers’ confidence in the outlook for employment and business conditions have declined for two consecutive months,” said Lynn Franco of the Conference Board, a New York-based group that studies the marketplace. “That’s definitely a sign of a cooling economy.”

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Claudia Vaughn of the Times Poll contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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How is the economy?

*

Q: In your opinion, how is the nation’s economy doing these days?

$ amount = Household income (In thousands):

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*--* Less More All than than $40 $40- $60- $100 $60 $100 Well 50% 40% 46% 68% 60% Badly 47 58 51 28 39 Don’t know 3 2 3 4 1

*--*

Those who said the economy is doing well . . .

Q: Is there one reason in particular that makes you feel the economy is doing well?*

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*--* 1. Unemployment is low 39% 2. No particular reason 27% 3. Local business/community is doing well 10% 4. Personal financial situation is good 9%

*--*

Those who said the economy is doing badly . . .

Q: Is there one reason in particular that makes you feel the economy is doing badly?*

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*--* 1. Unemployment is still high 20% 2. Gasoline prices 20% 3. Inflation 14% 4. Budget deficit 11%

*--*

Q: Would you say the country’s economy is better off because of George W. Bush’s economic policies than when he became president more than five years ago, or worse off, or about the same?

$ amount = Household income (In thousands):

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*--* Less More than than All $40 $40- $60- $100 $60 $100 Better 19% 15% 20% 26% 22% Worse 48 55 46 38 43 About the same 27 26 27 27 32 Don’t know 6 4 7 9 3

*--*

Q: Would you say your own family’s economic situation is better off because of George W. Bush’s economic policies than when he became president more than five years ago, or worse off, or about the same?

$ amount = Household income (In thousands):

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*--* Less More than than All $40 $40- $60- $100 $60 $100 Better 21% 14% 16% 35% 33% Worse 27 39 21 18 8 About the same 48 43 58 46 54 Don’t know 4 4 4 1 5

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Q: Have the tax cuts of the last few years benefited you personally, or not?

$ amount = Household income (In thousands):

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*--* Less More than than All $40 $40- $60- $100 $60 $100 Benefited (net) 34% 24% 34% 52% 41% Benefited a lot 9 9 7 11 12 Benefited a little 25 15 27 41 29 Haven’t benefited 61 70 62 46 57 Don’t know 5 6 4 2 2

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Q: Have wages and incomes in the United States grown more under the economic policies of George W. Bush or those of Bill Clinton?

$ amount = Household income (In thousands):

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*--* Less More than than All $40 $40- $60- $100 $60 $100 Grew more under Bush 13% 10% 13% 13% 25% Grew more under Clinton 39 40 44 32 37 About the same 35 40 28 43 24 Don’t know 13 10 15 12 14

*--*

* Top four responses

Notes: Results shown are among all U.S. adults nationwide.

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Times Poll results are also available at www.latimes.com/timespoll.

How the poll was conducted: The Los Angeles Times / Bloomberg Poll contacted 1,321 adults nationwide by telephone June 24-27, 2006. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the nation, and random digit dialing techniques allowed listed and unlisted numbers to be contacted. Multiple attempts were made to contact each number. Adults were weighted slightly to conform with their respective census figures for sex, race, age, education and region. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points in either direction. For certain subgroups, the error margin may be somewhat higher. Poll results may also be affected by factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented.

Source: Los Angeles Times / Bloomberg poll


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