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Poll Analysis: Bush in Honeymoon Period

President Bush’s agenda of tax cuts and education is getting public support. There is no rush to judgment on his ability to lead.

Times Poll Director
     Six weeks into his presidency, George W. Bush is enjoying a honeymoon with the American people. This positive feeling is spilling over into people‚s feelings about the economy (somewhat upbeat) and where the country is heading (about where it was in a poll take in December ‚00), according to a new Los Angeles Times Poll. Yet, because of the way Bush won the election (through the Supreme Court decision) and losing the popular vote, most Americans feel he does not have a mandate to push through many of his campaign promises, but should pursue a course of compromise with congressional Democrats over his tax cut proposals, school vouchers, privatizing Social Security and other campaign promises
     The public is not in a rush to judgment about Bush. They are willing to wait for him to settle into his new job˜assemble his staff, make Cabinet appointments (by the way, his Cabinet choices are rated high by most demographic groups), and understand the inner workings of Washington DC.˜before they come to any conclusions about his performance.
     Bush‚s job performance is respectable, however, it is similar to recent past presidents‚ ratings at about the same time they started their tenure. In separate Los Angeles Times and Gallup polls, Clinton received a 58% job approval rating in February 1993, while the elder George Bush had a 59% share in early March 1989. In March 1981, Reagan had a 60% job approval rating, compared to 71% for Jimmy Carter in February 1977 and 60% for Richard Nixon in February 1969.
     ? 62% approve of the way Bush is handling his job (even 45% of Democrats approve, 30% disapprove)
     ? 18% overall disapprove
     This is good news for the president, but there are some dark clouds behind this rating, namely, the displeasure of African Americans. More than two out of five African Americans disapprove of the job he is doing, while three out of 10 approve. Many indicated he stole the election and that as the new GOP leader, he will pander to the rich. Also, about half of this racial group has an unfavorable impression of him, while almost four out of 10 look at him favorably. (21% are very unfavorable). As a comparison to the former president, 80% of blacks have a favorable impression of Clinton (with 49% having a very favorable opinion).
     When asked why do you have an unfavorable impression of Bush, the 2 top mentions cited by blacks are:
     ? he stole the election, 21%
     ? he is a Republican, 10%
     Another of the president‚s campaign slogans is working for him˜„I want to unite, not divide the country.‰ This is resonating with the populace. Nearly 3 out of 5 of those surveyed believe that Bush wants to be the president who unites the country, whether through choosing a Cabinet that will contribute to that end or setting his policy agenda. Just a quarter believe his choices will divide the country. Once again, blacks are in the minority, with more than half believing he will divide the country (63% of whites believe the opposite). A plurality of Democrats (48%) thinks he can heal the country, while 36% don‚t believe that premise.
     Although Bush‚s presidency started off with a cloud over it, including late night talk hosts taking potshots at the president‚s grammatical gaffes and whether he has the intelligence to be president, the public has definitely warmed to him. They believe he is the one making the presidential decisions and not his advisors. Just under a fifth of the public believe that Bush will rely on Vice President Dick Cheney too much to help him make presidential decisions, while 13% say he will rely on him too little, and 59% say he would be relied on as much as any of the president‚s other advisors. Besides receiving a positive job rating, Bush is also receiving good ratings overall. (Just the opposite for former President Clinton. The American people have always been able to separate the two Bill Clintons˜the president and the man. They have usually given him high marks for the job he has done and low marks for their overall opinion of him, personally.)

     Bush‚s overall rating:
     ? 68% of the American people have a favorable opinion of Bush; 22% unfavorable and 10% don‚t know
     ? Democrats, his most ardent critics, are also giving him relatively good marks. Fifty-one percent of this group have a favorable opinion of him, 35% have an unfavorable one.
     ? Women, who voted handily for Gore last November, also like him (61% to 27% unfavorable)).
     When respondents who had a favorable impression of Bush were asked why, they mentioned:
     ? Honesty and integrity (22%)
     ? Moral values (14%)
     ? Has done a good job so far (12%)
     When respondents who had an unfavorable impression of their new president were asked why, they cited:
     ? Not smart enough (16%)
     ? He stole the election (13%)
     Education and a tax cut are both cornerstones of Bush‚s agenda and the respondents chose those two issues as their top priorities for the new president to tackle. Nearly 3 out of 10 respondents cited education as the top issue, followed by tax cuts at 15%. His strategy of focusing on a couple of issue˜tax cuts and education˜is resonating with the American people. The economy came in third at 14%.

     Bush and Ideology
     Nearly half of those surveyed believe Bush is more conservative than they are on political matters and 42% also believe he is more conservative on social matters. Pluralities of most demographics have the same opinion about the new president‚s ideologies with the exception of majorities of blacks (71%) and Democrats (56%). But, even those respondents who think the president is either more politically or socially conservative than they are, gave the president positive overall ratings. However, 44% who thought he was both socially and politically conservative gave him a more modest overall rating. Toward this end (on social matters), abortion is a big issue. During his campaign Bush said he would not use abortion as a litmus test for appointments to the Supreme Court and that he would not overturn Roe v. Wade. He said the American people are not ready for that but that he would try and change the culture of life. Nearly half of Americans are in favor of the Roe v. Wade decision. Forty-two percent say abortion should be legal in all cases and 41% say they should be illegal except in the cases of rape, incest and to save the mother‚s life. Just over one in 10 say abortion should be illegal in all cases.
     Almost two-thirds of the public believe that Bush will appoint conservative justices to the Supreme Court. But they can‚t decide whether they believe Bush when he said he would not use abortion as a litmus test in his selection of a justice to the Supreme Court (44% believe him, 42% don‚t). Of those who say Bush would choose a conservative justice, 37% would be pleased with that event, 32% upset and 30% say it would make no difference. Of those who say Bush would choose a moderate justice, a third would be pleased, 8% would be upset and 56% say it wouldn‚t matter. And of those who say Bush would choose a liberal justice, 12% are pleased, 23% are upset and 62% say it wouldn‚t matter.
     As you know, Bush‚s first acts as president was to issue an executive order to block federal government grants to international family groups that provide abortions and abortion counseling. The respondents surveyed were divided over this˜45% approved of this act, while 46% disapproved. More than half of the men surveyed agreed with this decision, while a similar number of women disagreed. White respondents approved (48% to 43%) while black Americans disapproved (52% to 40%). There has been speculation that Bush appointed John Ashcroft as attorney general and made the abortion executive order his first presidential act to shore up his conservative base. It seemed to work. Three out of five conservatives approved of his action,compared to 41% for moderates and 32% for liberals. (63% of conservative Republicans and 65% of conservative independents also approved).

     Bush and his agenda
A majority of the public think they have a good idea where Bush wants to lead the country (56% vs. 36% who say they don‚t have a clear idea). At least 3 out of five whites know where Bush is going with his administration, while two thirds of black Americans say they are not clear. Democrats are split on this (44% to 47%), while the reverse is true for Republicans˜over three-quarters of them are clear where Bush wants to lead the country.
     Republicans always had this stigma attached to them that they are for the rich and don‚t care about the poor. Two out of five of those surveyed believe this about Bush˜that he cares more about rich people; 43% believe he cares about all people. Just 1% thinks he cares about poor people and 8% say the middle class. Two thirds of blacks say Bush cares more about rich people (as do a third of whites). Even a third of the highly affluent respondents (households earning more than $60,000 a year) believe he cares more for the rich.

     During the next four years:
     ? 58% think Bush will make significant improvement in the nation‚s education system; 29% don‚t think he will
     ? 47% think Bush will be able to strengthen Social Security and Medicare; 39% don‚t think he will
     ? 26% think Bush will be able to provide affordable health care coverage for all Americans, 54% don‚t think he will

     Some of Bush‚s proposals:
     ? 59% approve of building a national defense shield system, which would intercept intercontinental nuclear missiles launched against the U.S.; 31% disapprove and 10% aren‚t sure.
     ? 65% approve of creating an office in the White House that would enable religious organizations to receive government funds to provide services to the poor. Most demographic groups are in favor of this (including 63% of blacks, 65% of whites, 57% of Democrats, 55% of independents and 78% of Republicans)
     ? 47% approve of considering opening up part of the Alaskan Arctic Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration. 54% of Democrats and 48% of independents are opposed, compared to 68% of Republicans who are in favor of this. Men are in favor of this (54%), but women are opposed to it (48%). Whites want to open up this land (50%), while blacks are opposed to it (56%).
     ? An overwhelming 80% approve of Bush‚s education package, which includes annual testing in grades 3rd through 8th and pumping $5 billion over five years into elementary education for the retraining of teachers in reading instruction for students in kindergarten through 3rd grade. He also wants to hold the schools accountable for the progress of their students. Most demographic groups are for this plan.
     ? 58% approve of Bush‚s proposal to allow individuals to divert part of their Social Security payroll taxes into private accounts. The more wealthy the household, the more they are inclined to approve of this plan, while the poorest respondents (those with households earning less than $20,000) are split over this 41% to 42%. Almost 7 out of 10 of the most affluent approve of privatizing some of the Social Security payroll taxes. Also, the younger respondents are more favorably inclined towards this proposal. Almost three quarters of those 18ˆ29 years of age approve of it, while just a third of the elderly (65 and over) approve of it.
     However, only 32% would still approve of the plan even if it meant a reduction in the guaranteed benefit retirees receive through the Social Security system. More than a fifth approved of the plan before they were told of the reduction of benefits, now oppose it because of the reduction in the guaranteed benefits, and a third always disapproved of the plan.
     ? 63% believe campaign finance reform should be a top priority of the Bush administration. Two-thirds of Republicans feel that way, as well as more than three out of five conservative Republicans.
     School vouchers is a very thorny issue for Bush. This has been part of his education package, but Democrats and some moderate Republicans are not in favor of vouchers for private or parochial schools. Plus it would take money away from public schools that so urgently need the money. We asked respondents to consider two versions of school voucher plans and to decide which came closer to their view.
     The first version is the Bush plan which favors school vouchers when schools fail to improve student performance for three years. Federal funds would be diverted into a $1,500 voucher and given to low income parents to buy after school tutoring or to pay for tuition at a private school.
     The other version was proposed by some Democratic senators who would give vouchers to parents who have children in failing schools that could be used for after school tutoring but cannot be used for private school tuition. Also, the plan would fund the vouchers with new money and would not take existing federal aid from failing schools.
     ? 42% favored the Bush plan
     ? 46% favored the Democratic plan
     White and black respondents each are in favor of the Democratic voucher plan (46% and 50% respectively) as are women, 48%. Men, however, are split about which plan they would endorse˜45% for Bush‚s plan and 44% for the Democrats‚ proposal. Nearly half of married men are for the Bush voucher plan, while almost the same share of married women are in favor of the Democratic plan.

     Tax cuts
     As you know, all through the presidential primary season Bush was rolling out his large tax cut plan, and surveys showed during the campaign season that most Americans were not in favor of it. They were more inclined to favor the Gore plan which was a smaller, targeted tax cut for low to middle income families that also included reducing the budget deficit and funding for domestic programs, such as education and Medicare. People are still feeling that way. Although they say they favor Bush‚s tax cut plan, when you get down to the details of it, they are not so inclined to approve of it. They are more inclined to favor the Democratic plan for a smaller tax cut over the Bush $1.6 trillion tax cut.
     Just over half of the public approve of Bush‚s proposed plan using the budget surplus for an across-the-board tax cut of $1.6 trillion over the next ten years for all taxpayers. Forty percent disapprove of his plan and 8% are undecided. The poorest Americans are divided over whether they approve or disapprove of the tax cut, but nearly 3 out of 5 of the wealthier Americans (households making more than $60,000) approve of it. However, when the respondents are read Bush‚s tax cut proposal and the Democratic plan, the popularity of Bush‚s tax cut plan decreases sharply.
     Nearly 3 out of 5 of those surveyed say the government should pay down a smaller amount of the national debt to leave money from the budget surplus for tax cuts and spending in areas like education and Medicare. And nearly 3 out of five are concerned that the federal budget will fall back into a deficit if Congress approves Bush‚s tax cut proposal.
     „George W. Bush has proposed a tax cut of $1.6 trillion and eliminating about two-thirds of the national debt over the next 10 years, which is about $2 trillion. Democrats say the tax cut should be about half as big with more money devoted to spending on domestic programs such as Medicare and education and reducing the debt.‰
     ? 30% favor the Bush plan
     ? 55% favor the Democratic plan
     But a small plurality think this tax cut proposal is a good thing for the nation‚s economy, while a quarter believe it is bad and a third aren‚t sure yet. People who own stock (50%) say the tax cut will be good for the country, while just a little more than a third of the people who don‚t own stock feel that way.
     The Democrats are saying that the tax cut will benefit the rich. This argument is reaching the public‚s ear and their replies are echoing back the Democrats‚ sentiment˜53% think Bush‚s tax cut will benefit rich people over other income groups, 19% feel it will help the middle class and 11% think the poor will benefit. One in ten think all people will benefit from this tax cut. Almost three-quarters of black Americans feel the rich will do well under this plan. Half of the more affluent respondents (households earning more than $60,000) say the tax cut will help them, the rich.
     And interestingly, nearly half don‚t think they will get any money from Bush‚s tax cut proposal. But if they do, a quarter say they will save some of it and the rest they will spend. (60% of households with less than $20,000 say they won‚t receive any money from this proposal.)
     Bush also proposed limiting the growth of federal spending next year to 4%, slightly above the rate of inflation and much less than government spending has grown in the last few years. He says that this is enough money to fund priorities like education and medical research while preventing spending from growing too fast. Democrats, on the other hand, argue that Bush‚s proposal to limit growth is imposing cuts in needed programs in order to pay for his tax cut. When respondents were asked which was closer to their view, a small plurality sided with Bush over the Democratic argument, 44% to 38%.

     Trust in Government
     Despite Bush‚s promise to bring civility and bipartisanship to Washington, almost half of the respondents surveyed don‚t believe that will happen. They think there will be four years of gridlock because of the equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans in the Senate and nearly an even split in the U.S. House of Representatives. Republicans are more optimistic about this, though, than their brothers and sisters across the aisle.
? 48% say gridlock (including 59% of Democrats vs. 35% of Republicans)
? 44% say political parties will work together (including 59% of Republicans vs. 39% for Democrats)
     And for the first time since January 1995 when the Times Poll asked the question, more respondents think the Republicans will do a better job handling the problems facing the country than the opposing party (39% to 32%). Perhaps because of Bush‚s rhetoric, his compassionate conservative theme, 29% of the public think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right always or some of the time, compared to 15% who thought that in a poll taken October 1995. Fifty-one percent think you can trust the government some of the time, while 18% say hardly ever (in the last poll, 25% said hardly ever).

     Economic Outlook
     Americans feel the same way as they did when a Times Poll was taken a few months ago as to where the country is headed. About half those surveyed say the country is going in the right direction to 40% who believe we are heading off on the wrong track. Also, about two-thirds each of the public believe both the economy is doing well and that their own personal finances are secure. But only a third think President Bush‚s policies will make the country stronger, economically, and more than a fifth think his policies may weaken the economy and a third think it will remain the same. Yet, even with this somewhat good economic news, there are some underlying currents that may foreshadow an uneasiness about the nation‚s economy. For example, in a Times Poll taken December 2000, 82% of the public thought the economy was doing well (64% believe that today˜a precipitous decline of 18 points) and in May 2000, 72% said their finances were secure (68% of respondents feel that way today).
     A couple of results that could also lend themselves to this growing anxiety:
     ? 18% of those surveyed are saying that the economy is the most important problem facing the country today, only preceded by education at 19%. In January 1998, 9% said the economy.
     ? 56% of the less affluent (households earning less than $20,000) think the country if off on the wrong track, as do 54% of black Americans.
     ? 56% of the less affluent and 42% of those in households earning between $20,000 and $40,000 say their finances are shaky
     ? 6% say they lost their job within the past 6 months; 9% are concerned that they will

     Former President Bill Clinton
     Clinton cannot get out of the limelight. He has overshadowed Bush since he took office and it doesn‚t look like the stories about the controversial pardons will go away soon. Yet, almost two thirds of Americans approve of the job Clinton has done as president. An overwhelming 82% of blacks give him solid ratings, while 59% of whites also approve of his time in office. Men and women have similar positive opinions about the former president (65% for men, 63% for women).
     However, in terms of Clinton, the man, 52% have an unfavorable opinion of him, while 45% have a favorable one. Blacks (80%) and Democrats (62%) are still loyal to the former leader. Women who helped propel Clinton into winning two terms have a negative opinion of him. About two in five respondents think Clinton will go down in history as either a below average or poor president. A similar share of the public think he will go down as an above average or outstanding president. And about a fifth think he will be remembered as an average leader. This has not changed much since we asked this question about him in January ‚99. Below is a chart comparing other presidents (from L.A. Times and Gallup polls taken the January after their term expired):
  Bush   Reagan   Carter   Ford  
Above average   38% 59% 14% 25%
Average   38 25 37 50
Below average   23 14 46 21

     Senator Hillary Clinton (of New York) is being hurt by the pardon controversy. Her favorable impression is 44% compared to 48% for unfavorable. More women have a favorable impression of her than men (49% for women, 39% for men). But the erosion of her popularity is dramatic, especially among women. In a January ‚98 Times Poll, her favorable rating was 60% and her unfavorability was at 28%. Two thirds of women, then, had a favorable impression of her.

     Pardon Controversy
     Almost three-quarters of the respondents say they heard or read something about the controversy surrounding several of the pardons Clinton made before he left office. Almost half feel the pardons were made relying on a combination of the merits of the case and favors returned for contributions or gifts. Two out of five believe the pardons were made in return for favors. Hardly anyone believes the pardons were made solely on the merits of the cases. Even his strongest supporters˜Democrats and blacks think either the pardons were made in return for favors only or a combination of both merits of the cases and favors to the president.
     The Times Poll asked two different versions of questions about Clinton‚s pardons. One was straightforward and the other was designed to see if remembering other controversial presidential pardons would change people‚s perceptions of Clinton‚s pardons. As you can see by the results, they changed slightly to Clinton‚s advantage when respondents were reminded about the past.
     The sample was split and half the respondents were read one of these two statements about Clinton‚s pardons.
     1. Do you think the pardons that President Clinton made before he left office were better or worse than the pardons made by previous presidents, or were they about the same?
     2. As you may remember, President Ford pardoned Richard Nixon after he resigned from office and President Bush pardoned former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger for his part in the Iran contra affair during the Reagan administration. With these and other presidential pardons in minds, do you think the pardons that President Clinton made before he left office were better or worse than the pardons made by previous presidents, or were they about the same?

   Sample 1  Sample 2 
Better   5% 6%
Worse   45 41
Same   33 41

     And finally, nearly half of the respondents surveyed think that the Republicans in Congress are investigating these pardons for political gain, while 40% believe it was for a quid pro quo.

     How the Poll Was Conducted
     The Times Poll contacted 1,449 adults nationwide, by telephone March 3-5, 2001. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the nation. Random-digit dialing techniques were used so that listed and non-listed 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 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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