As economy lags, support for Bush drops

Between February and April, President Bush's public support dropped in every region of the country, and among all age groups. Even fellow Republicans gave him lower marks.

President Bush's honeymoon with the public may be over.

Factory layoffs are rising, the stock market is depressed, and a new nationwide survey finds that Americans are increasingly frustrated with Washington's response to economic problems.

One result: Mr. Bush's latest report card shows declining grades.

In a new nationwide poll sponsored by this newspaper, Bush earned an overall mark of only C-plus. That grade was down from B-minus in February. On the critical issue of the economy, the president scraped by with just a C.

These numbers may rebound, given the favorable outcome of Bush's efforts to get 24 American aviators released by China, as well as the recent uptick in the market. Nevertheless, the widespread drop in public opinion is striking.

The Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll found the president's grades had declined in seven of nine issues on which he made campaign promises during the 2000 election. The poll determined that his public support dipped in every region of the country and among all age groups. Even fellow Republicans gave him lower marks.

Two months ago, for example, 35 percent of Republicans surveyed said that Bush should get an "A" for his performance on the economy. This month, only 22 percent said they felt that way.

"This may mark the beginning of the end of the president's honeymoon," says Raghavan Mayur, president of TIPP, a unit of TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence, who conducted the poll for the Monitor.

The poll was conducted April 6 to 10 and included telephone interviews with 949 Americans ages 18 and higher. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.2 percent.

High rating on morals

Even with these latest declines, however, Bush's standing with the public remains fairly solid. He is still widely respected for supporting strong morals, for his efforts to improve the military, and for his policies to aid America's schools.

"Bush is king when it comes to providing leadership in encouraging high moral standards and ethics for the country," says Mr. Mayur.

Eunice Godwin, a Republican and retired apple farmer in Oroville, Wash., is representative of many of those surveyed. "The very first thing I liked about [Bush] is that he's honest and has morals," she says. "As a mother and grandmother that's important to me."

Mrs. Godwin is still waiting for the president to push through his education proposals, however. "If we don't have educated children, we don't have anything," she says.

And she is skeptical about whether the nation can really afford Bush's $1.6 trillion tax cut. "How can our nation go from being in the hole financially and suddenly have all this surplus?" she asks. "There's no such thing as a free lunch."

There appears to be no single event or issue that pulled down the president's overall standing with the public. Rather, analysts point to an accumulation of circumstances. These include, first and foremost, the weakening economy.

In addition, the administration's decision to kill a new rule that would have reduced levels of arsenic in drinking water met with loud protests. So did the president's opposition to the Kyoto Protocol that seeks to reduce greenhouse gases. Even his negotiations winning the release of the American aviators from China were criticized by some conservative Republicans as being too solicitous toward the Chinese.

Economic woes

It was probably no coincidence that declining support for Bush showed up just as confidence in the economy is faltering.

An index of economic optimism, computed monthly by the Monitor/TIPP poll, fell to 52 in April, down from 54 in February and March. (Anything above 50 is still considered positive.)

Within that overall score of 52 are troubling signs. There was a notable decline in the past month in the economic optimism of Americans ages 65 and over, and among independent voters, as well as among middle-class households, particularly those earning more than $75,000 a year. Optimism also has declined significantly in the South.

There has also been a sharp drop of confidence among the "investor" class, consisting of households with more than $10,000 in the stock market. Some 47 percent of US households are in this group, and many have seen the value of their portfolios plunge in the past year.

Sharing the blame

While Bush draws more criticism on the economy, others in Washington also are coming in for their share of blame. For instance, Beverly Goodes, a retiree in Orlando, Fla., wonders why Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan is holding interest rates so high. "I don't think it would hurt to cut," she says.

Retired apple-grower Godwin, who wants to see interest rates reduced another half-percent, feels the same way. "I'm not a Greenspan fan," she says. "The Fed didn't do us any favors."

Nor is Congress exempt from blame. One complaint heard during this survey: If an income-tax cut is so urgently needed to help the economy, why is Congress currently on a two-week spring holiday?

Staff writer Steven Savides contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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