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Public Not With the Bush Program

The latest Democracy Corps poll (see also the useful accompanying charts) provides a wide range of data indicating that the public, while they may have granted Bush a second term, remains distinctly unenthusiastic about his agenda.

In terms of right direction/wrong track, just 42 percent think we're going in the right direction, compared to 51 percent who think we're off on the wrong track. And 50 percent want the country to go in a significantly different direction than Bush's direction, compared to 46 percent who want to continue in Bush's direction.

In terms of assessing the direction of the economy, only 39 percent agree "the economy is doing well, creating jobs, rising incomes, growing stock values and home ownership and moving in the right direction, while 59 percent say "the economy is not good for the middle class and working people. Jobs are scarce, incomes stagnant, and benefits being cut back". Two different questions on whether "the middle class dream is very much alive in America" yield negative judgments, 50-48 when paired against a general statement about people having less chance to be middle class and middle class living standards declining and 60-39 when paired against a statement that emphasized the contrast between people at the top thriving and others having less chance to be middle class.

In terms of the direction of US foreign policy, 55 percent now say that "America's security depends on building strong ties with other nations" rather than "bottom line, America's security depends on its own military strength" (41 percent). That 14 point gap in favor of building strong ties is up from just a 3 point gap right before November's election. And by 55-40, voters now say the war in Iraq was not worth the cost in US lives and dollars--consistent with other recent polls that have been showing increasingly negative views on whether the war with Iraq has been worthwhile.

As for the focal point of Bush's second term program--his proposal to transform Social Security by creating a system of private accounts within the system--the poll finds 44-41 opposition to his proposal when presented in unaided fashion ("As you may know, George Bush recently presented his proposal to reform Social Security. Overall, do you favor or oppose his proposal to reform Social Security?". And when presented in an aided fashion that includes a simple description ("As you may know, President Bush has proposed a plan to strengthen Social Security by allowing workers to establish personal accounts to invest a portion of their Social Security contributions in the stock market. Do you favor or oppose Bush's proposal?"), opposition is even higher (52-39). In addition, by 53-40, people say they are more worried about politicians changing Social Security to make it less secure in the future than about politicians failing to change Social Security so that it will be secure in the future.

The poll also includes an extensive battery of items that asks respondents which party they associate more with a wide variety of characteristics. The Democrats' advantages aren't terribly surprising. They are favored over the Republicans on: for the middle class (+21); equality (+19), a better life for middle class America (+17); cares about people (+16); putting the public interest first (+13); fairness (+11) and a number of other areas including being 24 points less likely to be associated with greed.

Republicans' associational advantages are also generally predictable: strength (+27); protecting America against any threat (+25); and respecting religious faith (+15), for example. But it should give Democrats pause that the GOP's top associational advantage is not any of these but rather "know what they stand for" (+28). The GOP also has an 11 point advantage on optimism and a 10 point advantage on prosperity. These GOP advantages illustrate the following uncomfortable political truism for the Democrats. They will not be able to generate that much political progress from the indisputable fact that the public, in many important ways, is not with the Bush program if they cannot convey to the public what Democrats stand for and what their vision for the future is.

This point is amplified by considering some of the more contested areas, where Democrats have only slight advantages or disadvantages vis a vis the Republicans: reform and change (+5); opportunity (+3); improving America (+3); new ideas for addressing the country's problems (+3); trustworthy (+1); for families (tie); shares your values (-1); future-oriented (-1); and individuals making the most of their talents (-4). Democrats need to move many of these associations decisively in their direction and that can likely only be done by clarifying for the public what Democrats stand for and where they propose to take the country.