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The State of Public Opinion

President Bush is preparing in his State of the Union address to tout his accomplishments in a number of areas, as well as offer some new initiatives. He will, of course, put the best possible spin on these accomplishments and insist that Americans are happy with those accomplishments and want to continue moving in the direction he has taken the country.

But there’s another side to the public opinion story here. In reality, Bush faces a public skeptical in important ways of what he has done and where he proposes to go. Here’s an issue-by-issue guide to this skepticism in key areas likely to be addressed by the president (polling data cited are the most recent available for a particular question).

Iraq

• Twice as many Americans (31 percent to 15 percent) believe the capture of Saddam will increase the threat of terrorism against the US than believe it will decrease that threat (CBS News/New York Times poll, December 21-22, 2003)

• More Americans (25 percent to 20 percent) believe the capture of Saddam will increase attacks on US troops in Iraq than believe the capture will decrease these attacks (CBS News/New York Times poll, December 21-22, 2003)

• Most Americans (53 percent to 43 percent) say we are not safer and more secure now that Saddam has been captured (Newsweek poll, January 8-9, 2004)

• More Americans (47 percent to 42 percent) believe the result of the war with Iraq was not worth the loss of American life and other costs of attacking Iraq than believe it was (CBS News/New York Times poll, December 21-22, 2003)

• Americans overwhelmingly (70 percent) disagree with the statement that “the threat of terrorism has been significantly reduced by the [Iraq] war.” (Program on International Policy Attitudes poll, November 21-30, 2003)

• By a wide margin (61 percent to 24 percent), Americans say that U.S. priorities should be to focus on finding Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda members, rather than focus on dealing with Saddam and Iraq (CBS News/New York Times poll, December 21-22, 2003)

• Americans strongly believe (60 percent to 37 percent) that, given the goals versus the costs of the war, the number of US military casualties so far has been unacceptable (ABC News/Washington Post poll, December 18-20, 2003)

The Economy and Taxes

• The public overwhelmingly (81 percent) says that most Americans are not better off financially than they were in 2001. This includes 40 percent who say most Americans are not as well off and 41 percent who say they are in the same shape. Just 17 percent say most Americans are better off (ABC News/Washington Post poll, December 18-20, 2003)

• By 3:1 (54 percent to 18 percent), Americans say the country is financially worse off, rather than better off, than when Bush took office (Los Angeles Times poll, November 15-18, 2003)

• Over three-quarters of Americans (77 percent) say they personally are either not as well off (27 percent) or in about the same shape (50 percent) as when Bush took office. Only 22 percent say they are better off (Los Angeles Times poll, November 15-18, 2003)

• Most Americans (55 percent) think Bush is not spending enough time dealing with economic problems, compared to 42 percent who think he is (ABC News/Washington Post poll, December 18-20, 2003)

• Most Americans (68 percent) believe that Bush’s overall economic policies in the last three years have either made the economy weaker (43 percent) or had no effect (25 percent). Just 24 percent believe his policies have made the economy stronger (Los Angeles Times poll, November 15-18, 2003)

• Most Americans (55 percent) think the Bush tax cuts have either had no effect on the economy (35 percent) or mostly hurt the economy (20 percent). This compares to 41 percent who say the tax cuts have mostly helped (ABC News/Washington Post poll, December 18-20, 2003)

• Most Americans believe (58 percent to 34 percent) that spending on improving roads, bridges and schools, rather than returning money to taxpayers through tax cuts, would be the most effective way to stimulate the nation’s economy (Los Angeles Times poll, November 15-18, 2003)

• Bush has net negative approval ratings on both the economy and taxes: 46 percent approval/48 percent disapproval on the economy and 45 percent approval/47 percent disapproval on taxes (Newsweek poll, January 8-9, 2004)

Health Care

• Strong pluralities of both seniors (47 percent to 26 percent) and those 55-64 (46 percent to 32 percent) disapprove of the Medicare changes voted by Congress (ABC News/Washington Post poll, December 3-7, 2003)

• Seniors just barely say (46 percent to 39 percent) that they favor the new prescription drug benefit for Medicare recipients–unusually low for a group that’s just received a new benefit (Gallup poll, December 5-7, 2003)

• Seniors overwhelmingly (85 percent) say that they are very (56 percent) or somewhat (29 percent) concerned that the Medicare changes won’t go far enough in helping seniors pay for their prescriptions (Gallup poll, December 5-7, 2003)

• A lop-sided majority of seniors (78 percent) also say they are very (58 percent) or somewhat (20 percent) concerned that these changes “benefit prescription drug companies too much” (Gallup poll, December 5-7, 2003)

• By more than 2:1 (59 percent to 28 percent), seniors think the new Medicare plan will do more to benefit prescription drug companies than Medicare recipients (Gallup poll, December 5-7, 2003)

• Despite the passage of the Medicare prescription drugs bill, Americans give Bush just a 37 percent approval rating on handling health care issues, with 50 percent disapproval. This is essentially unchanged since November, before the bill was passed (Newsweek poll, January 8-9, 2004)

• Americans give Bush the same low 37 percent approval rating on handling Medicare, with 47 percent disapproval. Here, too, his rating is essentially unchanged since before the bill was passed (Newsweek poll, January 8-9, 2004)

• By a wide margin (59 percent to 39 percent), Americans believe it is the responsibility of the federal government to make sure all Americans have health coverage (Gallup poll, November 3-5, 2003)

• Bush’s job rating on “the cost, availability and coverage of health insurance” is a truly abysmal 28 percent approval/63 percent disapproval (ABC News/Washington Post poll, October 26-29, 2003)

Education

• Two-thirds of Americans (67 percent) think the Bush administration’s policies have either made the nation’s schools worse (26 percent) or had no effect (41 percent). Just 23 percent believe these policies have improved the schools (CBS News/New York Times poll, September 28-October 1, 2003)

• The public overwhelmingly (84 percent to 14 percent) believes that the best way to judge a school’s performance is to see whether students show reasonable improvement from where they started, rather than whether they meet a fixed standard, as specified in the NCLB Act (Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa poll, May 28-June 18, 2003)

• By more than 2:1 (66 percent to 32 percent) the public does not think a single test, as in the NCLB Act, can provide a fair picture of whether or not a public school need improvement (Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa poll, May 28-June 18, 2003)

• The public also strongly believes (72 percent to 26 percent) that a single test cannot accurately judge a student’s proficiency in English and math (Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa poll, May 28-June 18, 2003)

• By a substantial 66 percent to 30 percent margin, the public believes that the current emphasis on standardized tests will lead teachers to “teach to the test”, rather than teaching their subjects (Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa poll, May 28-June 18, 2003)

• Americans strongly believe that teacher salaries are too low (59 percent) and that teachers should be paid higher salaries as an incentive to teach in schools that are identified to be in need of improvement (65 percent) (Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa poll, May 28-June 18, 2003)

• By almost a 50 point margin (73 percent to 25 percent), the public says we should focus on reforming the existing public school system, rather than trying to find an alternative to that system (Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa poll, May 28-June 18, 2003)

• The public strongly opposes (60 percent to 38 percent) allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense (Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa poll, May 28-June 18, 2003)

Comments

Oh, Ruy: It's not about the issues, is it? Hasn't been for some time.

The nub of the Democrats' problems of late have had nothing to do with where we stand on issues, which have for some time had majority support. The obstacles we face, or at least the ones that keep me up at night, can be boiled down to two main areas:

1. The media, which is increasingly openly hostile to Democrats. There are too many examples of this to bother documenting here, but the most relevant for EDM is your ongoing and much-needed documentation of how the media spins polls to favor Bush. WSJ claims just yesterday that the majority of the public believes capturing Saddam makes us safer; USAT writes a glowing article about Bush surging in the polls, when their own poll showed him dropping by 3 percent; Time writes an article about Dean's alleged unelectability, burying their own poll results showing he polled best against Bush (within 5 percent) among the Democratic contenders.

And the trivialization of politicis! Maureen Dowd this week alone wrote about Clark's sweaters and Dean's wife's Birkenstocks. As someone wrote in the blogosphere recently, you can practically hear democracy dying when you read this stuff.

2. Republican tactics and symbols. They are ruthless. They will demonize the Democratic candidate -- get ready for the Dean/Clark = Saddam/Osama ads! They know that the people they have to convince, those non-ideological folks who vote almost entirely on personality, or "gut feeling," don't care about the complexities of the candidates' tax plans, health plans, or airy theorizing about pre-emption doctrines. Those people care about symbols, and so they want to see that their President is a good guy, a man's man, upright and honest.

As long as the media plays along with this image-making, the Republicans have the advantage. The issues are so secondary, it's ridiculous.

Dan Perreten is right that the Repubs have the advantage, but remember that, apart from the truly bought-and-paid-for media like Fox, the public discourse is fairly responsive to whatever appears to be entertaining. The Repubs do this well, from demagoguery like Limbaugh and Coulter to the tactics Dan mentions.

I'm not pollyannaish about how hard it is to overcome the current mass media echo chamber, but one of the reasons I like reading this blog is that Ruy has an excellent sense of how to turn polling data into effective political argument. He's the best I've seen at generating the "framing" that might have a chance at getting the public's attention.

Couple that with a passionate, energetic candidate and we just might have a chance.

I have to disagree with two premises of your comment Dan, (1) its not about the issues and (2) we have had majority support on the issues for some time now. Your second statement might be right at the policy level, but not at the public philosophy level. Since 1980, "everyone knows" that "government IS the problem." The conventional wisdom that forms the backdrop for all policy debates is that big government was a failure and the less government we have, the better. All of the policies that involve government intervention in the economy/society, even though they are popular, have to be proven as an exception to this conventional wisdom. So we start every argument three steps behind, and we are susceptible to the Republican argument that we are "big government people" -- that we will not have the judgement to turn off government intervention when it no longer makes good policy. We have to start arguing, and winning the argument, at the philosophy level -- an activist government is necessary and beneficial -- before we will really translate our policy strengths into electoral strength.

As for the media, they are sheep. They will turn on a dime the minute that the political winds shift. Just remember how incredibly hostile they were toward Regan -- until he was elected -- and then how thoroughly they fell in love with him.

Dan is right - but having the issues on your side is good place to begin. And Democrats can learn to play the image game, too. We can start in 2004 by understanding how this affects Presidential candidate choice and nominating accordingly.

The insistence of many on the left side of the Dem party that we can earn a majority merely by organizing and making intellectual policy arguments to persuadeable voters is fantasy.

Paul: Excellent way to nuance my too-blunt point. What I meant, of course, was just that on particular issues, when you ask voters a yes-or-no question, they'll go with the Dem proposal every time. But you're absolutely right that the general philosophical atmosphere is dominated by Republicans. Hence, most of the Dem candidates shouting about "tax relief." Ugh.

I'm not as sanguine as others here on the subject of the media. Yes, the media was incredibly favorable to Reagan, but this was nearly a quarter century ago and hardly the best comparison. . . . Or maybe it IS the best comparison. Because my thesis is that the media is deeply antagonistic to Democrats in general, and the media's "on bended knee" treatment of Reagan only reinfoces that thesis. When was the last time the media treated a national Democratic candidate or politician with the kind of unalloyed adoration that they treated Reagan and W?

Ummmm . . . Kennedy?

So how is it gw still maintains a 60% or so overall approval rating?


Dan, Do I know you?
Have you ever been to St Louis?
If yes, hit me up on ICQ: 136547585.
If not - sorry you just remind me of someone.
regards,
Chris

"The insistence of many on the left side of the Dem party that we can earn a majority merely by organizing and making intellectual policy arguments to persuadeable voters is fantasy." - Bu, you hit it in one.

Fortunately for us lefties, we have some Dems who are finally ready to "fight back" in the media wars and stop letting the Reps b.s. us into the back of the bus in 2004!

Peace,
Holly*