February 22, 2001

Bush Approval on Par, No Tax Cut Momentum

Other Important Findings and Analyses

Blacks Remain Wary

On balance, every major demographic group approves of the way Bush is handling his job as president, with one exception — non-whites. Overall, non-whites are fairly evenly divided over Bush’s job performance: 30% approve, 33% disapprove, 37% have no opinion. Blacks are the most critical: 22% approve, 40% disapprove and 38% have no opinion. Hispanics approve of Bush by a margin of 46%-25%. Bush receives much lower job approval ratings from blacks than his father did in February 1989. Fully 53% of blacks approved of the job Bush Sr. was doing at that point in time. Bush Jr.’s support among blacks is much more comparable to Reagan’s in 1981.

There is a fairly substantial gender gap in approval of Bush, with men approving of the job he’s doing by a 59%-19% margin and women approving by a narrower 48%-23%. There are also large religious gaps. While 72% of evangelical Protestants approve of the job Bush is doing, only 57% of mainline Protestants agree. Seculars are evenly divided in their evaluations of Bush: 34% approve, 33% disapprove, and another 33% are undecided.

Among partisan groups, Bush’s ratings mirror Clinton’s at a comparable point in time. In February 1993, Clinton enjoyed strong support from Democrats (81% approved) and moderate support from independents (52% approved). Among Republicans, 29% approved of the job he was doing. Similarly, Bush enjoys strong support from within his party (85%) and moderate support from independents, while 29% of Democrats approve of the job he is doing.

Personal Judgments, Partisan Divisions

Even though Bush’s personal traits are working to his advantage, his ratings on several specific personal and leadership qualities lag behind Clinton’s early ratings. While most Americans see Bush as warm and friendly rather than cold and aloof (67% vs. 21%), Clinton scored even higher on this dimension in January 1993 when fully nine-in-ten Americans said he was warm and friendly. Today only 51% of Democrats describe Bush as warm and friendly, compared to 81% of Republicans who described Clinton that way in 1993.

By a margin of 62%-27%, Americans see Bush as well informed rather than poorly informed. But Clinton was viewed as well informed by nearly eight-in-ten Americans (79%) in 1993. Again, partisan patterns are much different this year than they were eight years ago. Today only 42% of Democrats describe Bush as well informed. This compares with 64% of Republicans who judged Clinton favorably on this quality at the outset of his presidency.

Bush’s ratings for trustworthiness are on a par with Clinton’s early ratings. Six-in-ten Americans say Bush is trustworthy, while 28% see him as untrustworthy. In January 1993, Clinton was seen as trustworthy by 63% of Americans, while 29% saw him as untrustworthy. Republicans were most skeptical of Clinton in this regard; only 36% saw him as trustworthy. This is comparable to the 38% of Democrats who now see Bush as trustworthy. Opinions about Bush’s trustworthiness have changed very little since October 1999 when 59% of the public said the then-Texas governor was trustworthy and 33% said he was not.

Two-thirds of Americans perceive Bush as being well organized, while only 22% say he is not well organized. Bush scores considerably better on this measure than Clinton did in August 1993, following some well-publicized early stumbles. Similarly, Bush is widely seen as able to get things done — 60% choose this over not able to get things done. Democrats are divided on these two issues. On balance, they see Bush as well organized but not necessarily able to get things done.

Demonstrating that opinions about Bush have yet to solidify, no consensus has emerged about the president’s political ideology. A narrow plurality of Americans (44%) see him as a conservative. However, nearly as many (39%) describe him as middle of the road. Only 7% think he’s a liberal. Conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats are among the most likely to say Bush is a conservative (58% and 75%, respectively). Moderate Republicans as well as moderate Democrats are more likely to perceive him as middle of the road.

Surplus Views Unchanged

Bush’s ratings for his handling of the economy are comparable to his overall approval ratings: 50% approve, 22% disapprove and 28% don’t have an opinion. Support for Bush’s tax
proposal, however, is lukewarm at best, with the public favoring the plan by a nine-point margin (43%-34%).

In spite of Bush’s focus on taxes, the idea of tapping the budget surplus to underwrite a tax cut is only slightly more popular than it was a year ago. When asked what should be done with the budget surplus, a plurality of the public (37%) continues to support shoring up Social Security and Medicare. Roughly one-quarter (23%) favors using the surplus to increase spending on domestic programs such as health, education and the environment, 19% say the surplus should be spent on a tax cut and 17% choose debt reduction.

But Bush has managed to expand GOP support for his plan. A narrow plurality of Republicans now say a tax cut would be the best use of the budget surplus, while a year ago Social Security and Medicare were seen as the top surplus priorities.

Support for Bush’s tax proposal is strongest among men, those with annual household incomes over $75,000, white evangelical Protestants, and married people. Support is also relatively strong among those who have been closely following news about Bush’s tax plan. Among this group 52% approve and 41% disapprove. While Republicans overwhelmingly support Bush’s plan (76% approve), independents are evenly divided and Democrats strongly oppose the plan. Even among moderate to conservative Democrats, only 19% approve of Bush’s tax plan.

On balance, the public believes stimulating the economy to avoid a recession is a better reason for a national tax cut than providing tax relief to average Americans. Even those who support Bush’s tax proposal opt narrowly for economic stimulus over tax relief. Republicans, Democrats and independents all agree that keeping the economy out of a recession is a better reason for cutting taxes than providing tax relief to people like themselves.

Few Believe Cuts Will Be Fair

The biggest hurdle Bush may face in gaining support for his tax proposal is the widespread perception that if his tax bill becomes law, it will benefit some people much more than others. Nearly two-thirds of the public holds this view, while only 26% think the tax bill will be fair to everyone.

Among those who think the tax cuts will not be fair, the consensus is clearly that they will benefit the wealthy at the expense of the middle class and the poor. Nearly eight-in-ten of those who think the tax cuts will benefit some more than others say the wealthy will be the primary beneficiaries. Only 12% think the middle class will benefit more than others, and 4% think the poor will benefit.

Blacks are among the most likely to think Bush’s current tax plan will be inequitable: 84% vs. 62% of whites. An overwhelming majority of Democrats (87%) believe the Bush plan would benefit some more than others and nearly as many independents (71%) agree. Conservative Republicans, however, say that Bush’s proposed tax cuts would be fair.

Opinion about these issues has changed only modestly over the last year, in spite of Bush’s emphasis on the issue and the growing sense that a major tax cut is inevitable. In September 1999, a Pew Research Center survey found the public highly skeptical about the fairness of a proposed GOP tax cut. Roughly 80% thought a major tax cut would benefit some more than others, and 80% of that group saw the wealthy as the most likely winners.

Charitable Choice: Some Doubts

The public is supportive, in principle, of Bush’s plan to enable religious groups to receive government funding to provide some social services. Nearly two-thirds (64%) favor allowing religious organizations to apply, along with other organizations, for government funding to provide services such as job training or drug treatment, while only 30% oppose such an approach. The idea attracted similar levels of support during the heat of the presidential campaign in August and September.

However, when the faith-based model is specifically linked to the White House, support wanes. Just 46% think it is a good idea that Bush created an office in the White House to enlarge the role that religious organizations play in providing social services, and 38% think it is a bad idea. Republicans and evangelical Christians offer the most consistent support for Bush’s proposal — both in theory and in practice. Democrats, independents and mainline Protestants are more conflicted. Each group supports the idea of a religious role in the delivery of social services, while raising concerns about White House involvement.

For example, while 56% of Democrats say they like the idea of religious groups having access to public money for social services, nearly as many (50%) think Bush’s White House office is a bad idea. It is the more moderate and conservative Democrats who are most conflicted on this issue; 64% support a religious role in social services, but only 37% believe Bush’s White House office is a good idea.

The divisions on this issue are most noteworthy across religious groups. While evangelical Protestants strongly support both the faith-based approach and Bush’s White House office, mainline Protestants are much more divided. While nearly three-quarters of mainline Protestants favor allowing religious organizations to apply for federal money, only 40% approve of Bush’s action to create a White House office.

There is a significant generational gap on this issue as well. Older Americans are less supportive than their younger counterparts of the idea of allowing religious groups to provide social services. They are also more skeptical about the existence of a White House office undertaking such an effort. Only 55% of those age 65 and older favor the faith-based approach and fewer than four-in-ten support the creation of a White House office.

Partisans See More Bias

The public’s views of whether the press has been fair to Bush, and Clinton for that matter, are colored by politics and partisanship. Not surprisingly, supporters of a president (or an ex-president) are more likely to regard the media as biased, but this factor has been growing in recent years.

Today, just 58% of Republicans say news organizations are fair to Bush, and 30% believe they are unfair. At the start of Clinton’s first term in office, 67% of Democrats thought the press was fair to the former president, and 24% thought they were unfair. In 1989, fully 77% of Republicans thought the press was being fair to Bush Sr., and just 18% saw bias. Partisanship is evident in contemporary views of Clinton as well; just 42% of Democrats say press coverage of Clinton’s post-presidency has been fair compared to 71% of Republicans.

The public professes to be growing weary of Clinton and the continuing media interest in his alleged transgressions. While more than half of Americans say there has been too much coverage of Clinton, just 9% believe there has been too little. Still, nearly six-in-ten say they followed the controversy over Clinton’s last-minute presidential pardons very (28%) or fairly (32%) closely.

A slim majority of Americans (52%) are satisfied with the amount of coverage of Bush’s first weeks in office. But nearly three times as many say the media has been giving Bush’s policy proposals too little attention versus those who say coverage has been excessive (28%-10%). Blacks in particular are dissatisfied with the amount of press coverage of the Bush agenda. Fully 43% of African-American respondents say there has been too little coverage of Bush’s policy proposals, compared to only 27% of white respondents.

On other issues, pluralities of Americans are satisfied with the amount of cov
erage of signs of a slowing economy (46%) and the rising cost of energy (42%). But more than one-third (36%) believe the media has been giving too little coverage to energy prices.

Missile Defense: Arguments Matter

Bush’s proposal to build a missile defense system to protect the nation against potential attack remains popular among the public, though the manner in which the issue is framed makes a difference, particularly to conservative Republicans.

Overall, a solid majority (54%) favors development of a national missile defense system, with just 32% opposed. However, when arguments in favor of and against the missile shield are presented, the public is more evenly divided. While a plurality of 49% still supports developing a missile defense system, four-in-ten oppose developing such a system.

Perhaps surprisingly, providing the supporting and opposing arguments (the goal of protecting the nation against the cost and diplomatic ramifications of proceeding) has a significant impact on the strongest supporters of missile defense — conservative Republicans. While 81% of conservative Republicans support missile defense in principle, support drops to 68% when points for and against the plan are provided. By comparison, the attitudes of moderate Republicans and Democrats are largely unchanged by the arguments.

Men and members of the Cold War generation (born before 1950) are among the most supportive of missile defense, regardless of how the issue is framed. Fully 61% of men favor missile defense in the simple question format, compared to 48% of women. While 63% of Americans age 50 and older favor a missile defense system, just half of those under 50 agree.

Economy Tops News Index

Reflecting Americans’ pocketbook concerns, stories about Bush’s tax plan and the economy led this month’s news interest index. About three-in-ten Americans paid very close attention to Bush’s tax proposal and news on the state of the economy. Nearly two-thirds of Americans paid at least fairly close attention to these stories (69% economic news, 66% Bush’s tax proposal).

Clinton’s pardons attracted wide public attention, as did the collision between a U.S. Navy submarine and a Japanese ship. Better than one-quarter of Americans followed news of the collision very closely, while 66% followed the story at least fairly closely.

About 60% of the public also followed the California energy crisis closely, with a quarter of Americans paying very close attention. Not surprisingly, people living in the West paid more attention to this story than did those in other regions by more than a two-to-one margin (43% vs. 20%).

The earthquake in India was followed very closely by 15% of the public. This level is considerably less than the attention paid to other international natural disasters such as Hurricane Mitch in 1998 (36%) and the earthquake in Turkey in 1999 (27%). Another foreign news story, Ariel Sharon’s election victory in Israel, ranked at the bottom of this month’s news interest index. Just one-in-ten followed this story very closely and one-quarter of the public followed it at least fairly closely.