December 18, 2008

Bush and Public Opinion

Part 2: Bush and the Issues

Shortly after President Bush took office in February 2001, no single issue stood out as the top national problem, though morality and ethics were mentioned most frequently (at just 12%); fewer than 1% cited terrorism. There was no clear public consensus about the nettlesome issue that was confronting policymakers – how to spend the federal government’s budget surplus.

With the Sept. 11 terror attacks a few months later, the nation’s policy agenda was irreversibly altered. Terrorism and the struggling economy dominated the public’s concerns. Bush’s decision to go to war in Afghanistan won overwhelming public support, while his subsequent decision to take military action in Iraq proved to be the most fateful of his presidency. At home, Bush struggled to sway public opinion his way to enact legislation furthering his agenda.

Bush succeeded in winning significant support for his position on some issues. On balance, the public saw the need for certain actions to reduce the risk of terror at home, even though some argued those steps infringed on basic civil liberties. On others, the task proved more difficult. For example, he could not muster strong support for
making his signature tax cuts permanent or for privatizing a portion of the Social Security system. His signature immigration reform proposal drew tepid support even from his fellow Republicans. Here is how the public reacted to four top issues on Bush’s policy agenda:

Social Security

Bush first promoted the idea of private Social Security accounts during his 2000 run for the White House. He established a commission to study potential changes once in office. The plan would have allowed many workers to allocate a portion of the payroll taxes that would regularly go into Social Security into accounts with investments for their retirement that they could control. But the president had trouble building broad support for the idea.

As Bush started his second term in 2005, a Pew survey asked about the proposal. Despite an intensive campaign to promote the idea, the percentage of Americans who said they favored private accounts in Social Security fell from 58% in September 2004 to just 46% in March 2005. During the 2000 campaign, 70% said they supported the concept.

There was broad public awareness that Social Security faced a financial shortfall. In February 2005, two-thirds (67%) said they thought the Social Security program would run out of money in the future. But of those opposed to private accounts, nearly half (48%) said they worried about the impact of potentially risky investments. Nearly three-in-ten (28%) of those people cited the possibility that benefits would have to be cut.

Bush continued to promote the idea later in his presidency, but faced with broader budget concerns and stiff opposition from senior citizens groups and others, it gained little traction.

Tax Cuts

Bush ran for election in 2000 pledging to cut taxes as a way to boost a slowing economy. From the start, the public was divided over the idea. In February 2001, a modest plurality (43%-34%) backed the tax cut idea, though when people were asked how they would like to see the then-surplus used, a plurality (37%) said they would first shore up Social Security and Medicare.

Moreover, most Americans (65%) believed that the tax cuts would benefit some people more than others. Among those who expressed this view, the prevailing belief was that the tax reductions would benefit the wealthy rather than the poor or the middle class.

Still, Congress quickly approved a first round of tax cuts in mid-2001. The climate would soon change dramatically, first with the devastating Sept. 11 terror attacks and then with the start of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In March 2003, Pew asked people how they thought the administration should pay for large increases in spending on defense and homeland security. When offered a choice of three alternatives, a 40% plurality said that the tax cuts should be postponed or reduced; 20% favored adding to the budget deficit; and just 16% supported scaling back spending on domestic programs.

With hopes that that the Iraq war would end quickly, Bush sought a second round of tax cuts that year, but the public remained skeptical. In a May 2003 survey, a majority (56%) said the tax cuts would mainly benefit wealthy people, compared with just 21% who believed they would be fair to everyone. About half (51%) believed they would increase the federal budget deficit. But about four-in-ten believed the tax cut would boost the economy and create jobs (44%).

Congress and the president enacted a plan that spring, though the tax cuts still engendered mixed support. In January 2006, half of Americans approved of the major cuts in federal income tax rates, while 38% disapproved.

Since then, Bush and congressional Republicans have repeatedly called for making the tax cuts permanent. Support for that proposal, though, has consistently been at 30% or less. In late October 2008, only 23% said all the tax cuts should remain in place; about a third (34%) said tax cuts for the wealthy should be repealed while others remain in place; and 27% said all the tax cuts should be repealed. Those numbers have changed little in four years.

Anti-Terrorism Policies

The terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, led many Americans to support steps that Bush said were needed to protect the country, including some vigorously opposed by those worried about limits on civil liberties.

In a February 2008 survey, more people (47%) said their greater concern about U.S. anti-terrorism policies was that they had not gone far enough to adequately protect the country than said the policies had gone too far in restricting civil liberties (36%). In August 2006, 55% said their greater concern was that the policies had not gone far enough, compared to 26% who worried about restrictions on civil liberties.

The 2008 survey showed increasing worries about civil liberties, particularly among Democrats. Half had said in 2006 that the policies had not gone far enough in protecting the United States, while a third said they went too far in restricting civil liberties. In 2008, the balance shifted to concerns about civil liberties (47% said they were concerned about civil liberties; 39% worried that the United States had not done enough).

In the August 2006 survey, Bush had made headway with his defense of the government’s authority to conduct warrantless wiretaps of suspected terrorists. By 54%-43%, the public said it is generally right for the government to monitor communications of Americans suspected of having terrorist ties without first obtaining permission from the courts. In January 2006, the public was evenly divided over this issue (48% generally right/47% generally wrong).

Meanwhile, public attitudes regarding other anti-terrorism policies remained divided and highly partisan. In February 2008, a narrow majority (52%) said it is right for the government to monitor the communications of Americans suspected of having ties to terrorists, without first getting court permission; 44% said this practice is generally wrong.

In that survey, more than half of Americans (52%) said that the government’s policies toward the prisoners housed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are fair, while a third said they are unfair. Again, the views were highly partisan. Nearly three-quarters of Republicans (73%) believed that U.S. policies toward these prisoners were fair, and only 13% said the policies were unfair. By contrast, nearly half of Democrats (47%) said the policies were unfair, while 39% said these policies are fair.

The overall willingness to balance priorities when dealing with terror threats could be tied to widespread perceptions that terrorists are still capable of striking within the United States. In February 2008, 57% said the ability to pull off such a strike is the same or greater than on Sept. 11. In August 2002, about six-in-ten (61%) said that capability was either the same or greater than in 2001.

Immigration

President Bush pushed for comprehensive immigration changes without success, though many Americans agreed with principles behind the legislation. In 2004, Bush laid out a proposal to allow certain workers in the country illegally to join a temporary labor program and apply for permanent U.S. residency. The president stressed that he opposed amnesty, but wanted to revamp the system to help immigrants and employers – and to boost national security.

In December 2005, the GOP-led House passed a significantly less forgiving measure, which died in the Senate. A March 2006 survey showed a divided public. A narrow majority (53%) believed that illegal immigrants should be required to go home, compared with 40% who said they should be granted some kind of legal status allowing them to stay in this country. When the option of a temporary worker
program was introduced, the fissures became even more evident.

As proposed by Bush, such a program would allow illegal immigrants to remain in the U.S. for a fixed amount of time on the condition they eventually go home. Opinion was almost evenly divided between those who favored allowing some illegal immigrants to remain in the U.S. under a temporary work program (32%); those who said illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay permanently (32%); and those who said they should go home (27%).

In June 2007, when the Senate was considering an immigration bill, 41% of those who had heard at least a little about the legislation said they opposed it, compared to 33% who said they supported it. Bush failed to rally Republicans behind the legislation. Fewer than four-in-ten Republicans (36%) said they favored the bill then before Congress; 43% opposed the bill and 21% offered no opinion.

Nonetheless, there was bipartisan support for one of the bill’s primary goals – to provide a way for people who are in the country illegally to gain legal citizenship under certain conditions. Overall, 63% – and nearly identical numbers of Republicans, Democrats and independents – favored such an approach if illegal immigrants “pass background checks, pay fines and have jobs.”

In general, the public was less supportive of providing “amnesty” for illegal immigrants than of providing a way for illegal immigrants to gain citizenship. The way that the issue was characterized had a significant effect on Republican views; while 62% of Republicans favored a way to grant citizenship to illegal immigrants if they met certain conditions; 47% supported “providing amnesty” for illegal immigrants under the same conditions.