April 26, 2001

Bush’s Base Backs Him to the Hilt

Introduction and Summary

After three months in office, George W. Bush is doing about as well with the American public as did his predecessors, because Republicans love what they are seeing and Democrats are expressing only modest opposition to his stewardship of the country. Bush’s approval ratings among the GOP faithful are slightly higher than ratings for his father at a comparable time and nearly equal to Ronald Reagan’s evaluations in April 1981. On the other hand, despite the hard feelings about the way the election was decided, Democrats are expressing considerably less disapproval of the president than Republicans voiced about Bill Clinton eight years ago.

The latest Pew Research Center survey finds 56% expressing approval for the way Bush is handling his job, while 27% say they disapprove. That marks an improvement over Clinton’s rating of 55%-37% in April 1993 — not only because fewer people disapprove of the current president, but also because a considerably larger number strongly approve of Bush than held very positive opinions of Clinton three months into his term (34% vs. 18%).

A sharp partisan pattern underlies these findings: The new president gets extraordinarily favorable evaluations from GOP faithful — 71% of all Republicans and 85% of conservative Republicans say they very strongly approve of Bush’s job performance. Equally striking, just 46% of Democrats disapprove of the Republican president, compared to 69% of Republicans who disapproved of Clinton in 1993.

Subdued Democratic criticism of Bush may well reflect mixed views about the way the party’s leadership has dealt with their new opposition role. More than one-in-three Democrats say their leaders have spoken out too little about Bush’s policies. Further, Democrats are divided as to who is the party’s leader: 27% pick Al Gore, 21% Bill Clinton, 14% Dick Gephardt, 12% Joe Lieberman and 5% point to Tom Daschle.

The president’s strong position with the public reflects continuing comfort with Bush personally, positive reaction to his handling of the recent standoff with China and his tax proposal, combined with limited knowledge of unpopular administration decisions about the environment. Just 28% of poll respondents knew that Bush had decided not to restrict emissions of carbon dioxide from power plants and even fewer (20%) knew of his decision to withdraw support for the Kyoto agreement to combat global warming. Half say they have heard nothing at all about the recent controversy surrounding Bush’s decisions regarding the amount of arsenic allowed in drinking water. This lack of awareness favors the administration because each of these decisions, when tested, is broadly unpopular. On the positive side of the ledger, a majority knew that Bush proposed increased federal spending for education and no fewer than 90% favor this idea.

The administration’s recent environmental decisions have not been entirely pain-free as the percentage saying Bush would not make progress on protecting the environment rose from 45% during the presidential campaign to 54% in the latest Pew survey. But the current lack of public knowledge of specific Bush proposals and policies is clearly muting criticisms in this area. Even those with strong environmental concerns are only dimly aware of Bush’s recent decisions.

Perhaps as a consequence, Bush gets only somewhat lower ratings than Clinton did in 1997 for striking the proper balance between environmental protection and economic growth. Despite all the bad publicity about his proposals in this area, those who worry most about environmental dangers are not overly pessimistic about Bush in this regard.

Bush’s success in gaining the release of the crew of the American spy plane was broadly applauded — 72% approved of his handling of the incident — and it likely helped firm up support for his ability to handle the nation’s foreign policy. A solid majority (55%) now expect Bush to do a good job in this area, which was considered a vulnerability during the campaign.

The return of the U.S. crew did not lead to a significant rise in Bush’s approval ratings; in fact, disapproval is slightly higher now than it was in February (27%-21%). What may be more important is that in spite of the furor in Washington over some of Bush’s environmental decisions, his ideology is also viewed about the same as it was in February — there has been virtually no increase in the number who identify him as conservative, and many moderates see him as one of them.

The latest Pew Research Center survey, conducted April 18-22 among 1,202 adults, shows that while Bush’s debut has been well received, GOP congressional leaders have dramatically improved their image. The leadership’s job performance ratings have been up-and-down — mostly down — since the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994. But now, with a Republican in the White House and GOP leaders adopting a more supportive tone, the public is responding positively: 45% approve of the job Congress’ leaders are doing, while 30% disapprove.

But both Bush and Republicans on Capitol Hill will face a major challenge in trying to win passage of the president’s budget and tax cut proposals. Here, public opinion is something of a mixed bag. Six-in-ten say they approve of Bush’s tax cut, yet as the president seeks to restrain the growth of government, Americans remain more supportive of increased spending for various programs. Strong support for increased education funding is a clear positive for Bush, but the public favors more spending on many other areas as well, including health care, Medicare, veterans, crime, energy and AIDS research.

Fulfilling Expectations

Opinions about Bush have come into sharper focus in recent weeks as more Americans are now willing to rate his job performance — either positive or negative — and his image has become defined more by his policy positions than his personal traits. Any increase in negative feelings since February has come primarily among Democrats and independents, as Republicans continue to enthusiastically back the president.

The Republican enthusiasm for Bush is particularly striking when compared to Democratic support for Clinton in the early months of his presidency. Fully 71% of Republicans strongly approve of the job Bush is doing today. Fewer than four-in-ten Democrats gave Clinton comparable marks in April 1993.

Overall, one-third of Americans (34%) say they strongly approve of the job Bush is doing, while only 18% strongly disapprove. Aside from conservative Republicans, the president’s strongest backers at this point are white evangelical Protestants (49% strongly approve), those with household incomes over $75,000 a year (48%), and men over age 50 (44%). Aside from liberal Democrats, his strongest detractors are labor union households (28% strongly disapprove), and urban residents (26%).

For the most part, Bush’s performance in office has been about what the public anticipated. More than two-thirds (67%) say that Bush has done about as they expected he would. For the remaining one-third of the public, Bush has clearly surpassed expectations — 22% say he has done better than they expected, only 7% say he has done worse. Among Republicans, 30% say Bush has done better than expected, 22% of independents say the same, as do 15% of Democrats. Only 12% of Democrats say the president has done worse than they expected. Clinton got less positive reviews in April 1993. While 73% of the public said he was performing about as they expected, fully half of the
remaining 27% said he was doing worse than expected.

When asked whether Bush is a stronger leader, a weaker leader or about as expected, a solid majority of Americans (59%) say he is about as strong as they expected. Among the remaining 41%, more say he’s stronger than say he’s weaker (21% vs. 13%). Again, Bush’s ratings surpass Clinton’s at a comparable point in time. In early 1993, 13% of the public saw Clinton as stronger than expected, 12% said he was weaker, and 68% said he was about what they expected.

Future expectations of Bush vary across different policy areas. The public is more optimistic about Bush’s ability to be successful in the foreign policy realm than they are about his ability to make progress on environmental protection. While more than half (55%) expect him to perform well in handling the nation’s foreign policy, only 39% think Bush is likely to make real progress in protecting the environment, and 54% think he will not.

Conservatives are optimistic about Bush’s abilities in both of these areas and liberals are skeptical, but political moderates are split. Most moderates think Bush will do a good job handling foreign policy (54%), but relatively few think he’ll make progress on the environment (38%).

When it comes to Bush’s ideology, a plurality of the public (46%) continues to see him as a conservative, though more than one-third (37%) view him as middle of the road. Republicans, Democrats and independents are mostly in agreement on this issue — 52% of Republicans say Bush is conservative, as do 48% of Democrats and 45% of independents.

On balance, the public thinks Bush is more conservative than he lets on. By a margin of 58%-33% Americans agree with this assertion. Opinion was nearly identical in September 2000 — when 58% of registered voters agreed that Bush was really more conservative and 28% disagreed.

Policies vs. Personality

As Bush nears the 100-day mark, his policy positions and proposals have clearly begun to register with the public. When asked in an open-ended format what they have liked most about Bush so far, Americans now point to his policy positions more often than his personal characteristics or political traits. In February, Bush’s image was defined more in personal than policy terms.

Policy has also become more central in negative descriptions of Bush. When asked what they have disliked most about him, 26% of Americans volunteer specific policy positions, while 10% identify personal characteristics and 7% name political traits. In February, there was a much more even split between policy and personal descriptions (16% vs. 11%).

Bush’s handling of the standoff with China is the single response cited most often by those who were asked what they have liked most about the president. That, along with Bush’s tax proposal dominates the policy-related responses to this question (8% and 6%, respectively). Among other policies cited by respondents were Bush’s support for the military and his education and economic policies.

The personal traits cited most often by those asked what they liked most about Bush were his honesty and integrity (6%), his calm and dignified manner (4%) and his character (3%). The top political trait, cited by 5% of the public, was Bush’s leadership style. Roughly four-in-ten respondents couldn’t come up with an answer when asked what they like most about Bush; that was largely unchanged from February.

Bush’s policy positions clearly dominate the public’s list of complaints about him, and his ideas on the environment are cited most often in this context. Eight percent of Americans say Bush’s environmental policies are what they like least about him. This shows that the recent series of decisions on the environment may be hurting Bush on the margins — the environment didn’t even register in the February poll. Bush’s tax proposals are cited negatively by 5%, and another 5% point to his handling of the recent conflict with China.

Arrogance or poor public speaking were the personal traits cited most often in the poll by those asked what they’ve liked least about Bush (3% and 2%, respectively). Another 7% mentioned political traits such as waffling or changing his mind. At this point, roughly half of the public can’t find anything to dislike about the president.

Knowledge Gap Favors Bush

One explanation for Bush’s high approval ratings may be that his most visible policy decisions also turn out to be among the most widely accepted by the public. That is true of his decision to increase spending on education, his tax cut proposal and his handling of the spy plane incident.

Nearly half of Americans (46%) are aware that the Senate passed a smaller tax cut than the $1.6 trillion proposed by Bush, and a 57% majority know that Bush has proposed increasing spending on education. Better than half of the public (55%) followed the spy plane saga very closely. Each of these actions receives broad public support.

By contrast, the public’s view of several of Bush’s recent decisions affecting environmental policies is not favorable. Only 21% approve of his decision not to limit carbon dioxide emissions, 25% approve of his decision to withdraw U.S. support from the Kyoto agreement and 26% approve of the way he’s handled the issue of arsenic levels in drinking water even after the more recent announcement that the administration would review this policy. His decision to impose stricter lead-reporting regulations was much more popular with the public — 80% approve of this move.

For the most part, it has been to Bush’s advantage that these actions did not connect with a large portion of the public. Fewer than three-in-ten are aware of any of these decisions. Just one-in-five knew of Bush’s initial policy decision on arsenic levels in drinking water. In addition, only 19% were up to speed on Bush’s decision to impose stricter lead regulations on manufacturers.

In general, the public is less clued in to Washington developments than it is to important news elsewhere. In spite of all the publicity surrounding the debate over the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation, only 21% of the public knew the Senate actually passed the bill. By comparison, nearly seven-in-ten Americans know that the families of Oklahoma City bombing victims will be allowed to watch Timothy McVeigh’s execution via closed-circuit television. Nearly half (46%) are aware that Yugoslavian leader Slobodan Milosevic was recently arrested.

Policies Divide Partisans

Not surprisingly, Republicans express higher levels of approval than do Democrats on Bush’s initiatives and decisions, with the exception of increased education spending where more than 90% of Republicans, Democrats and independents endorse Bush’s approach. The biggest partisan gap can be seen on Bush’s tax cut proposal: 83% of Republicans approve, compared to only 41% of Democrats. Similarly, while 91% of GOP loyalists endorse Bush’s handling of the China situation, only 59% of Democrats agree.

While Republicans are more supportive than Democrats of Bush’s early decisions on the environment, the president fails to win majority support for most of these policy decisions even among GOP loyalists. Only 38% of Republicans approve of his decision not to limit carbon dioxide emissions, and the same percentage approve of his handling of the arsenic issue. The biggest partisan gaps can be seen on Bush’s decision to withdraw U.S. support from the Ky
oto treaty — 41% of Republicans approve of this move, compared to only 12% of Democrats.