How Popular Is George Bush?

PUNDITS' views of the Bush presidency seem to change as often as the weather. The general public, though, is less fickle. Americans have consistently given Mr. Bush high marks over his first year, and they have shifted only to the extent of gradually becoming more positive in their assessments. In recent surveys, something between two-thirds and three-fourths of the public have voiced approval of the way George Bush is handling his job. For example, according to the poll done Oct. 9-10 by Yankelovich-Clancy-Shulman for Time and CNN, 75 percent approved and only 16 percent disapproved, while 9 percent weren't sure where to come down. The July Yankelovich poll had found 64 percent approving Bush's performance; the one in April, 54 percent.

Pollsters have asked the public for a thumbs up or down on the president's handling of his job every month since the 1930s, with a brief timeout during World War II. Against this backdrop, Mr. Bush's scores are high, but hardly unprecedented. In 13 Gallup polls done in 1953, Dwight Eisenhower's lowest mark was 59 percent approval; his average, 68 percent. Bush's 1989 average probably won't be that high. John F. Kennedy managed even to top Ike. In 14 Gallup surveys taken in 1961, he never received less than 72 percent approval, and once got the highest set of marks ever recorded by a US president - 83 percent.

Such historical comparisons, however, probably are not worth much. Americans respect the presidency as much today as they ever did, but the norms governing their answers to poll questions on the incumbent president's performance have shifted. In particular, supporters of the out-of-power party no longer seem as inclined as they once were to say, early on, that they approve (out of general respect). Even by present standards, Ronald Reagan's early marks from Democrats were unprecedentedly low; he never enjoyed even the first day of a partisan honeymoon. But George Bush, while he does much better, gets lower ratings from Democrats than Eisenhower did early on, lower than Kennedy received from Republicans in his first year.

If it is misleading to compare presidents' approval scores, it is both fair and instructive to compare Bush to his predecessor. At first glance, the results seem surprising. Mr. Bush has gotten higher approval scores than Mr. Reagan did at the same juncture - averaging 10 to 15 points higher over the summer and early fall of the first year. But is Bush really as popular as Reagan?

Much of Washington plainly doesn't think so. The chief reason for this involves intensity. The proportion of the public saying they approved Reagan's handling of the presidency early on was lower than that now approving Bush's performance but, the political community believed, a large share of Reagan's supporters backed him fervently. They were an army, ready to follow him into political battle. Bush does not seem to have much ardent support. Polls really aren't very good at measuring intensity of support, but what data we have from them accord with the politicians' judgment.

On the other hand, if Bush lacks an army, he has so far displayed a key resource Reagan lacked - a breadth of support across various social groups. The flip side of Bush's lacking the intensity of support given Reagan is that he is a less polarizing figure.

Reagan's support profile was uneven - high among some groups but weak among others. In mid-August 1981, for example, when according to Gallup his overall approval rate stood at 60, the president was backed by 69 percent of the college-trained, but by just 44 percent of the grade school-educated, by 66 percent of men, but 54 percent of women. Most notable, Reagan had the backing of only 18 percent of blacks, compared to 66 percent of whites.

Such differences held up throughout his presidency. In 135 Gallup polls taken over his eight years in office, Reagan's approval score in the black community averaged 25 percent. It dropped to 9 percent approval in December 1982 and January 1983, and it climbed as high as 40 percent only three times, all in 1986.

Bush's support is far more even. Men and women, the college- and grade school-educated, those with high and low incomes, etc., all give him strikingly comparable approval scores. For example, the Gallup poll of August 1989 - in which he received the approval of 69 percent overall, found him ranked favorably by 71 percent of those with family incomes of $50,000 and higher, and also by a high 66 percent of those with annual incomes of under $15,000. Seventy-one percent of whites approved Bush's performance - yet so did 57 percent of blacks.

Each president has to play his own hand. In terms of popular support, Bush's hand has different cards than Reagan's - but it is a strong one.

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