Public Wants Bush to Shift Focus To Domestic Issues, Pollsters Say

THE rosy afterglow of the Persian Gulf war has begun to fade for the Bush White House.The president, whose popularity reached historic heights when American troops marched into Iraq, has seen his support decline about 15 points in four months. Americans are still extremely fond of Mr. Bush; but voters tell pollsters that they are no longer so interested in foreign policy, Bush's primary interest. Now they want action at home. Edward Rollins Jr., who ran Ronald Reagan's reelection campaign in 1984, worries that Democrats are beginning a "drumbeat" on domestic issues that will last until Election Day - and damage the Bush presidency. Mr. Rollins told a breakfast meeting of reporters this week that domestic policy holds very little appeal for Bush. Domestic problems are "heavy lifting," he explains. "There are no simple solutions to any of the domestic problems facing this country. And it's not his interest, it's not his inclination." A Herblock cartoon this week caught Bush's political challenge. It pictured a group of Americans greeting the president after his recent triumphal travels with the sign: "Welcome to the USA, George Bush. Have a nice visit." Behind that welcoming sign, Herblock depicted a great pile of domestic problems: health care, failed banks, decayed housing, bankrupt insurance companies, and crumbling transit systems. Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster with Public Opinion Strategies, says the nation's huge success against Iraq presents Bush with a paradox. "As successful as Bush was and the US was in the Persian Gulf war, Americans seem to expect that same kind of success, or at least the same vigor and energy, on the domestic front," Mr. Newhouse says. "So they become frustrated.... They see how quickly we can marshal our resources to attack a foreign enemy, but they are frustrated with how slowly we attack our domestic problems," Newhouse says. All this doesn't mean that George Bush has catastrophic political problems just 15 months before the 1992 election, or that Democrats, like a victorious army, are about to march through the heavy iron grill gates that guard the White House. As Rollins puts it: "I don't think [there is] any way, shape, or form George Bush is going to be defeated in 1992." Rollins concedes, however, that unless Republicans get moving on domestic policy, the Democrats might make the '92 presidential race a lot closer than anyone now expects. Political analysts have noted, for example, results from polls by the Wirthlin Group, a GOP firm, which have detected growing unhappiness outside of Washington. At the outbreak of fighting in the Persian Gulf in January, 58 percent of Americans said that "things in the country are going in the right direction," Wirthlin found. Only 32 percent felt that things had "pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track." But the "wrong track" numbers have climbed steadily ever since: 43 percent at the end of the war; 47 percent in April; 53 percent in May; 56 percent in June. Meanwhile, the "right direction" numbers have dipped by 19 points to just 39 percent. Newhouse observes that the "right/wrong" numbers are sometimes a leading indicator: When they drop significantly, the president's popularity often follows. Likewise, when they go up, the president's popularity rises. After months of decline in the right/wrong surveys, Bush's own popularity has finally started falling, down from the mid- to upper 80's in March to 67 in the latest Times Mirror poll, July 11-14. Political analysts like Rollins, Republican pollster Richard Wirthlin, Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, and Gallup Organization vice president Larry Hugick trace the decline right back to domestic issues. "I've got to believe it's the economy," Mr. Hugick says. "The economy is generally what drives elections." Ms. Lake says newer issues are also beginning to move public perceptions, however, especially the issue of health care. Some 35 million Americans have no health insurance, even though millions of those people work. Lake calls it an "astounding issue" that "could be the social security issue of the '90s. It crosses every age group and opens the way for a major role for government." Republican pollster Ed Goeas agrees on the growing import of health care. He adds: "It is a very, very hard issue for Republicans." Rollins frets that the president won't develop a strong domestic agenda before the campaign begins. If he doesn't, Rollins says, people may say: "George Bush is a great international president and a great war president, but what has he done for us lately?" With Democrats still holding the Congress, that would create an "incredibly difficult second term" for Bush, Rollins says.

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