Poll Analysis: Bush Still Popular Despite Worries About Economy

Times Poll Assoc. Director

President George W. Bush remains popular with most Americans, according to the latest Times Poll. He gets highest marks for his handling of terrorism and homeland defense and while a plurality think the President’s tax cuts are good for the economy, a majority do not want to see them come at the expense of Social Security. A majority of Americans also said that the national economy is not performing well, reversing a Times Poll finding from just four months ago. The country, however, is polarized along partisan lines, with Democrats seeing President Bush and his economic policies in a much more negative light than do Republicans.

President George W. Bush

Just over half of American voters said they definitely or probably will vote to reelect Bush as president in 2004, including 16% of Democrats, 49% of independents, and 93% of Republicans.* Bush’s continuing public popularity evidently does not translate into guaranteed reelection. The campaign for president has yet to even get underway, of course. The recent announcement of Gore’s withdrawal from consideration for the Democratic nomination has blown that party’s field wide open. This survey shows that it is possible that the economy could once again become a major election issue, despite the recent focus on Iraq and anti-terrorism.

* Self-identified party affiliation.

Job Approvals

More than six in ten Americans gave George W. Bush a positive job approval rating, while a third disapprove. The survey shows, however, that the non-partisan nature of the public’s support for President Bush is beginning to crack.

When it comes to handling various issues such as the economy, foreign affairs, terrorism and the environment, members of Bush’s own party give him high marks across the board, and he has at least a majority thumbs-up from the public in general. Majorities of Democrats dislike his handling of the economy and foreign affairs. A plurality give him low marks for dealing with the environment, and only when it comes to fighting terrorism do they approve of the job he is doing.

Four months ago, in August, the Times Poll found Democrats divided in their opinion of the president with members of that party giving him a bare plurality of overall job approval, of 49% to 46%. The current survey shows Democratic sentiment hardening against Bush. Democrats said they disapproved of the job he is doing by a margin of twenty percentage points—57% to 37%. Just over two-thirds gave him low marks for his handling of the economy, 58% disapproved of his handling foreign affairs, and nearly half (48%) said they disapprove of his handling of the environment. Just over half (55%) said they approve of the way he has been dealing with terrorism.

Independents and especially Republicans are still firmly supportive of the job Bush has been doing as president, with 63% of independents and 97% of Republicans giving him an overall positive approval rating. However, the level of support among independents slipped downward eight points from 71% measured four months ago. Independents are split 48% approve to 46% disapprove on Bush’s handling of the economy, and 43% to 40% on the environment. Six in ten of that group approve of the President’s handling of foreign affairs, three-quarters approve of his handling of terrorism.

Congressional job approval is also slipping, heading steadily downward toward its pre-9/11 levels. Just under half (49%) of Americans gave Congress positive marks, compared to 53% last August. Previous Times Poll surveys found that public approval of Congress rose to a high of 69% in the months after the terrorist attacks in September of last year, and has been steadily dropping ever since.

The Economy

General Economic Outlook

While there is some evidence that any voter concerns about the economy were overshadowed by the Bush administrations focus on conflict with Iraq during the runup to the midterm elections last month, this survey shows that Americans are now increasingly turning their attention to the state of the economy, as the economic news worsens. More than half of Americans said the national economy is doing badly and six in ten said they felt the economy is in recession right now. More than a third cited the economy when asked to name the top priorities they would like to see President Bush and Congress address in the coming year, way ahead of other issues such as terrorism, homeland security, Iraq and education.

Slightly more than half (51%) gave President Bush positive marks for his handling of the economy so far while 43% said they disapproved of what he has been doing. However, when those who saw the economy in a negative light were asked who they blame for this state of affairs, more pointed the finger at President Bush’s policies than at any other cause.

There is a sense of growing unease. Just under half of Americans said the country is seriously off on the wrong track, which is almost double the proportion from nearly one year ago—in a February 2002 Times poll taken less than half a year after the terrorist attacks, only 26% said that the country was headed in the wrong direction. Forty-four percent in this survey said the country is heading in the right direction, down sharply from 65% in that previous poll. In addition, more than half (55%) in this survey said that the economy is doing either very or fairly badly, an increase in negativity from even last August when the Times Poll found nearly the same proportion saying it was doing well. Almost no one in this survey said the economy is doing “very well”, while almost two in ten said it is doing “very badly”.

The survey found that Americans’ view of the direction the country is headed is largely driven by their economic outlook—about two-thirds of those who said they think the economy is doing badly also said the country is off on the wrong track, while a similar proportion who said the economy is doing well also see the country as being headed in the right direction.

There isn’t a great deal of optimism among the public about the short term outlook, however, neither were they saying the outlook was dire. Nearly four in ten said that they think the economy will get better over the next six months while a bare plurality of 43% said it will stay the same and only 15% predicted actual worse times ahead.

Bush’s Economic Policies

President Bush’s handling of the economy was seen positively by just over half of all Americans, but like most of these economic issues, divided sharply along party and ideological lines. The president’s economic approval rating rose to over eight in ten among Republicans, not surprising among a group who are most likely to agree with Bush’s agenda of lowering taxes and increasing military spending. Nearly half of the party’s furthest right wing—conservative Republicans—approve strongly of Bush’s economic moves, compared to 42% among the GOP as a whole. For comparison, less than one in ten Democrats approve strongly. Just under half of independents said they disapproved of the president’s handling of the economy.

In early December, economic indicators worsened and Bush moved quickly to replace his top two economic advisors. Survey respondents were asked how confident they are that this new economic leadership will be able to stimulate the economy and improve growth. Just over half said they were at least somewhat confident, while 37% said they were not. However, once again, opinion on this matter divided sharply along partisan lines.

The Partisan Divide

Since differing economic theories are part of what divides Democrats from Republicans ideologically, it is not surprising that most of the economy questions slice neatly along those party lines. With the other party in power and thus having little control over the economic agenda, Democrats are tending to view the situation with the nation’s economy much more negatively than do Republicans.

Three times as many Democrats as Republicans said the economy is in very bad shape, and three quarters of Democrats said that the economy is at least in fairly bad shape compared to 36% of Republicans. Independents were more closely divided—46% said it is doing well, compared with 54% who said badly.

That partisan divide also can account for a good portion of the finger pointing at Bush’s policies when those who see the economy as doing badly were asked who they blame for it. Among the Republicans who said the economy is doing badly, most leveled blame at corporate fraud (34%), followed by the events of September 11th (16%). One third of Democrats in that group blamed President Bush’s policies, while 14% pointed to corporate fraud. Independents cited both issues as culpable in about equal proportion.

While six in ten Americans overall said the country is in an economic recession, Republicans were much less likely to see it that way than were others—51% of Republicans said the country is not currently in even a mild recession, compared to73% of Democrats and 61% of independents who said that it is. One in four Democrats, compared with more than double that number of Republicans, saw a rosier economic future heading our way in the next six months. Forty-three percent of independents said the economy will neither improve nor worsen, 40% predicted better times ahead, and 14% predicted things will get worse.

Which Party’s Policies?

The country is split over which of the two major parties could best handle the economy—four in ten overall picked the Democrats and about the same proportion picked the Republicans. In large part, respondents chose the party they identify with most closely and independents sided with the Democrats, barely, by 39% to 32%.

When asked to choose in a series of policy questions on taxes and tax cuts using the arguments of each party, that partisan split again appears. For example, 45% overall said tax cuts are more effective than reducing the federal deficit as a way of stimulating the nation’s economy. However, more than half of Democrats (54%) picked debt reduction, six in ten Republicans picked tax cuts and independents split 47% for tax cuts, 44% for debt reduction.

Spending on improvements in the country’s infrastructure such as road and bridge building or new school construction proved slightly more popular than tax cuts, however. Fifty-three percent chose infrastructure spending as a better way of stimulating the economy compared with 39% who chose tax cuts. Just about six in ten Democrats and independents chose spending, compared with 53% of Republicans who chose tax cuts.

Generally speaking, though, President Bush’s tax cut plan is seen by most Americans to be either beneficial (40%) or at worst having no effect (19%) on the nation’s economy. Just over a quarter said the cuts will harm the economy and 15% weren’t sure. A plurality also agreed with the Republicans in Congress who say the economy will be stimulated more rapidly by moving up the next round of cuts to 2003 rather than phasing them in over the next four years. Forty-eight percent said it would help the economy to move up the cuts, 19% said it would hurt, and 23% said accelerating the tax cut plan will have little effect on the economy.

The survey found the country more divided on the issue of whether to make the temporary tax cuts permanent instead of phasing them out again—44% overall said they should be made permanent (including 43% of Democrats, 39% of independents, and 52% of Republicans) while 37% said they should be left as is (including 41% of Democrats, 43% of independents, and 30% of Republicans.)

However, the popularity of the tax cuts didn’t hold up under the threat that cuts could reduce Social Security funds—64% of Americans overall said they feel strongly that any future tax cuts should not go through at the expense of Social Security and another 13% agreed, if not so strongly. Adding in the caveat that future tax cuts might not only impact Social Security but also further increase the national debt didn’t change the level of opposition, which indicates that the protection of Social Security is the main issue in the minds of most Americans, or at least more important than running up the deficit.

This survey found that support may be dropping for the Bush proposal to allow younger workers to manage some of their own Social Security funds in private stock market accounts. When survey respondents were read arguments for the proposal (younger workers could earn a higher rate of return on their retirement funds in the stock market) and against it (the stock market is too unpredictable to trust it with Social Security funds), 55% said they disapproved of the idea, compared to 38% who approved. Almost four in ten strongly disapproved of the proposal. Last August, a Times poll found the country much more evenly divided when asked a similar question.

In a follow-up question, a majority (56%) of those who said they would support private accounts for younger workers said they would still support it even if it meant a reduction in the guaranteed benefit retirees receive through Social Security. Thirty-nine percent would oppose it in that case. To put it another way, two in ten overall said they approve of the proposal to create private accounts and would do so even if it meant reductions in guaranteed Social Security benefits, while 17% would probably rethink their support if that was the case.

Personal Finances / Holiday Spending

Despite the somewhat gloomy outlook when it comes to the state of the nation’s economy, Americans are almost always more upbeat when it comes to their own personal finances. Almost two thirds said their financial situation is very (15%) or fairly (51%) secure while a third said their finances are shaky. This upbeat outlook did not, however, translate into a plan to increase holiday spending—only 15% said they plan to spend more this year than they did on presents last year. Four in ten said they actually plan to spend less, and 44% estimated the amount they spend this year will be the same as last year. About 1% volunteered that they do not purchase holiday presents. The proportion of Americans who said they plan to spend less on the holidays hasn’t been this high in a Times poll since the recession years of the early 1990s and doesn’t bode well for businesses which depend on the public digging deep into their pockets for holiday spending.

Democrats vs. Republicans on the Issues

Despite the slight edge voters gave to the GOP when more Republicans than Democrats were elected to sit in Congress, America continues to divide its opinion of which party can best handle the issues along the obvious partisan lines. Independents side slightly with Democrats except when it comes to national security and terrorism, when 49% (and 28% of Democrats) pick the Republicans as the best party to keep us all safe.

• Democrats get the edge over Republicans on the issues of handling Social Security (42% to 35%,) prescription drug coverage for the elderly (47% to 28%) and the environment (50% to 27%.)

• Republicans get the public’s vote of confidence on the single issue of terrorism (52% to 24%.)

• Americans pick both parties in nearly equal proportion on the issues of the economy (40% Democrats to 39% Republicans) and the budget deficit (38% Democrats to 39% Republicans.)

The Supremes

There has been some speculation that that one or more justices of the United States Supreme Court could retire during George W. Bush’s term in office. The survey found that it is generally assumed by the American public that any Bush Supreme Court nominee would come from the right politically—six in ten said they thought a Bush nominee would be either very (23%) or somewhat (36%) politically conservative. Fourteen percent said they expected Bush to nominate a moderate, and 12% predicted a nominee would be liberal.

Most Americans aren’t losing any sleep over the issue. Of those who predicted the political leaning of a potential Bush nominee, nearly four in ten said they’d be pleased if he selected a justice who came with those political leanings, a similar proportion said they wouldn’t care, and only 24% said they’d be upset if their prediction turned out to be true.

Of those that thought that a Bush nominee would lean to the right politically, 41% said they’d be pleased if that were the case, while 29% said they’d be upset, and 28% didn’t care. Among those who predicted a moderate nominee, 42% said they’d be pleased, and 50% said it made no difference. Those who foresaw Bush choosing a liberal nominee, only 11% would be pleased about it, 24% would be upset, and 60% said it would make no difference.

Among the 46% of Americans who favor the Supreme Court decision which upholds a woman’s right to have an abortion under certain conditions—known as Roe v. Wade—there is increased concern, however. Some pundits speculate that a court that moves to the right could challenge and possibly throw out Roe v. Wade. Of those who said they support the court decision on abortion, a little more than six in ten predicted that a Bush Supreme Court nominee would be politically conservative, and just under half of that group are upset by that thought.

George W. Bush has promised that he would not use a nominee’s beliefs on abortion as the deciding factor when choosing a nominee. Half of Americans said they believe this claim, while 41% said they do not. Just over half of those who favor Roe v. Wade said they don’t believe the president’s claim, while six in ten of those who opposed it said that they did.

Divided Government

During the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush made the promise that he would not play at partisan politics if he were elected, promising to work with both sides of the aisle in Congress to eliminate gridlock and pass legislation the country needs. The survey found that Americans generally don’t see the president’s term so far as an exercise in non-partisan leadership—only three in ten said he has been more non-partisan than previous presidents, while 16% said he has been more partisan and 45% said he has been equally partisan as previous presidents.

Now that Republicans control both houses of Congress and the oval office, however, gridlock is less of an issue. Surveys have shown that many Americans are wary of allowing one party to have all the power. A Times poll last August found six in ten saying it was better to have a divided government than it was to have one party in charge.

This survey found a plurality of 45% who said they agree with those who feel that having one party in charge is a bad thing for the country because it stifles debate. Three in ten agreed with those who feel that it is a good thing because it allows lawmakers to get more work done. About two in ten said it makes no difference one way or the other, and 7% weren’t sure what they think.

Civil Liberties

Despite the alarm raised by civil libertarians who are concerned about the erosion of personal rights and freedoms in the wave of anti-terrorism legislation which followed the September 11th attacks, most Americans don’t see recent developments in that area as threatening. However, there is some indication that the feeling that many Americans had that it is necessary to give up some civil liberties in order to increase public safety may be decreasing.

In this survey, for the first time since the Times Poll has measured it, a bare plurality of 46% said they are concerned that some of the government’s proposals will go too far in restricting the public’s civil liberties, compared to 41% who said that it is necessary to give up some of our civil liberties in order to make the country safe from terrorism. As recently as last August, the Times Poll found 49% who said that it was necessary to trade liberty for safety, while 38% disagreed.

Shortly after the September 11th attacks, a Times poll asked “In order to curb terrorism in this country, do you think it will be necessary for the average person to give up some civil liberties or not? Six in ten said they thought it would be necessary.

However, nearly half of Americans indicated that they supported a recent court order upholding the right of the FBI to wiretap phones and secretly search the homes and computers of Americans who are suspected of having links to foreign terrorists. Poll respondents were told of the court order, and then given an argument for—that it is a good thing because it allows the FBI to share information with the CIA in their hunt for terrorists—and against—it is a bad thing because it gives the government more power to spy on its citizens. They were then asked which argument they agreed with. Only three in ten said they oppose the court order. Opposition rises to only about four in ten among those Americans who are most inclined to be opposed—liberal Democrats and people under the age of thirty. About two in ten said they hadn’t heard enough about it to say.

A different program currently under development by the Department of Defense which is looking to compile a database of information on each citizen from records such as school and medical records, histories of financial transactions and credit reports, as well as phone calls, emails and web searches also caused only small alarm. Again, respondents were read an argument for and against the program. Three in ten said they sided with supporters who say the system will provide a powerful tool for hunting terrorists. Thirty-six percent sided with opponents who call the plan an invasion of privacy by the government. Nearly one in three (28%) said they hadn’t heard enough about it to form an opinion.

Just over a quarter (27%) overall supported both the court order and the proposed database program and just under a quarter (23%) opposed both.

How the Poll Was Conducted

The Times Poll contacted 1,305 Americans nationwide by telephone Dec. 12–15. 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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