January 17, 2002

Unusually High Interest In Bush’s State Of The Union

Public Priorities Shifted by Recession and War

Introduction and Summary

In the face of a struggling economy and the continuing war on terrorism, Americans begin 2002 upbeat about President George W. Bush’s job performance, his coming State of the Union address and the prospects for bipartisanship in Washington. Preventing future terrorist attacks and mending the economy are the biggest priorities this year. Almost all other issues are viewed as less urgent in the current poll, which replicates comparable surveys taken at the start of the last five years.

Solid majorities of Americans remain concerned about many of the domestic problems that ranked at the top of their list prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, including education, the nation’s retirement programs and health care. But the focus on peace and prosperity has pushed even these issues — staples of the capital’s policy debates for years — lower on the public’s agenda. Other objectives that Americans rated highly in the past — reducing crime, cutting taxes, helping the poor and protecting the environment — also are now viewed as much less important.

The latest nationwide survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted Jan. 9-13 among 1,201 adults, finds that the president will have the nation’s full attention on Jan. 29 when he delivers his first official State of the Union address. Fully 54% of Americans say the speech is more important than such speeches in past years. By comparison, just 16% judged former President Clinton’s final State of the Union address (in 2000) in the same terms, while 27% viewed Clinton’s 1999 speech, which was delivered in the midst of his impeachment proceedings, as particularly important.

With Bush’s approval rating at 80%, and 54% approving of the job performance of the Democratic congressional leadership, both branches of government have the goodwill of majorities of the public. Accordingly, a greater percentage than a year ago expects less partisan bickering in Washington. The public is also becoming aware of the capital’s changing political power structure, as a plurality now views Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle as the leader of the Democratic Party. About three-in-ten (29%) consider Daschle as the top Democrat, far more than the number who name Al Gore or Bill Clinton.

For the president, the second layer of opinion in the poll also is positive. Bush is given good grades for handling the economy by 60% of the public, despite the recession. And Americans are less inclined than a year ago to think that he is listening to conservatives in his party rather than moderates. The only mixed sign is that as many as 46% of those polled do not believe the president is trying hard enough to mend the economy. However, this is much better than the 76% who held that view about his father during the recession of a decade ago.

When it comes to the image of the two parties, the survey finds the public expressing more confidence in the GOP than in the Democrats both in combatting terrorism and dealing with the economy. Moreover, the public continues to place as much confidence in Republicans as Democrats on education, which had been a winner for Democrats until Bush made it a centerpiece of his 2000 campaign. However, the Democratic Party is rated much better than the GOP on concerns relating to health care and retirement programs, whose political potency may yet return as Washington gets back to normal.

News of the war in Afghanistan continues to hold high interest for the public, but that does not extend to the potential conflict between neighboring Pakistan and India, which drew close attention from only about one-quarter of Americans. Similarly the poll found only modest public interest in the burgeoning controversy surrounding Enron Corp. Only about one-in-five (19%) have followed developments on Enron very closely, which is on par with interest in the “rink rage” trial of a hockey father in Massachusetts.