September 5, 2002

One Year Later: New Yorkers More Troubled, Washingtonians More On Edge

IV. The President and 9/11: The Return of Politics

As the congressional midterm elections approach, President Bush's approval rating continues to edge downward. Six-in-ten now approve of Bush's job performance, down from 65% last month and 80% at the start of the year. Bush now has virtually the same rating as former President Clinton in September 1998, two months before that year's congressional elections.

Bush's falling ratings are primarily due to a steep decline in support among Democrats. In January, nearly seven-in-ten Democrats approved of his job performance; now, just four-in-ten give him a positive rating. Bush's job approval has softened among Republicans and independents as well, though not nearly as much.

While Bush's ratings have taken on more of a partisan cast, Clinton's approval marks were more deeply split along party lines. In September 1998, just a third of Republicans approved of his job performance; Bush currently is drawing a slightly higher rating from Democrats.

The public remains divided in its assessment of national conditions. Roughly half (47%) express satisfaction with the state of the nation, while 44% are dissatisfied. In May, Americans were evenly divided on this measure, while in March 50% were satisfied, 40% dissatisfied. Satisfaction with national conditions remains below its post-Sept. 11 peak, reached in late September of last year (57%).

Presidential Priorities: War, Economy

When asked about the president's priorities, a 43% plurality believes it is more important for him to focus on the war on terrorism rather than domestic policy. But when a separate group of respondents was asked a different form of the question, 39% said it was more important for Bush to focus on the economy, while 34% said the war on terrorism.

While men are evenly divided over whether the war on terrorism or domestic policy should take precedence, women by two-to one (46%-23%) believe Bush should concentrate on the war. This split is less pronounced on the war vs. economy. Still, more men than women say it is more important for the president to focus on the economy.

Traditionally, women have placed more emphasis on domestic concerns while men have been more likely to say national security should take precedence. But that has changed since Sept. 11, as women have become more concerned about the threat of terrorism and have become much more security conscious.

Priorities and Presidential Performance

The public's priorities are playing a role in shaping evaluations of Bush's performance in office. Those who think the president should be focusing on the war on terrorism rate him much more highly than those who think he should turn his attention to domestic issues. Among those whose priority is the war, 69% approve of his performance in office, while 22% disapprove. By contrast, among those who think domestic policy is more important, only 51% approve, with 37% disapproving.

Not surprisingly, public perceptions about homeland defense and the progress of the military effort in Afghanistan are closely linked with evaluations of President Bush's performance in office. Even among those who think the president's focus should be on the war, people with a favorable view of the government's performance in homeland defense give Bush much higher ratings (77% approval) than those who think homeland defense is not going so well (54% approval).