Poll Position

Two new opinion surveys suggest that George W. Bush is beatable this year.

Wed Jan. 21, 2004 3:00 AM EST

Last spring, in explaining his unconcern about the massive anti-war protests going on in American cities, George W. Bush said he wasn't about to have public opinion drive his policies; that, he scoffed, would amount to government-by-focus group. But sometimes even this president has to address public concerns. Leading up to the president's State of the Union address, two polls indicate that Bush, while he enjoys strong approval numbers on national security, is increasingly vulnerable on domestic issues. That is, many people who don't reflexively hate Bush (including many conservatives who ordinarily support him) aren't happy with his performance on the home front. All of this is feeding the sense that maybe Bush is beatable after all.

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According to a CBS-New York Times poll released on Saturday, a majority of independent voters -- a presumably crucial group in an election year -- have doubts about his handling of the economy.

Here's what the New York Times discovered:

"Fewer than one in five people said their tax burden had been eased by Mr. Bush, who has made tax cuts the centerpiece of his economic program. His latest domestic initiatives, unveiled in the run-up to the State of the Union message on Tuesday, got only a lukewarm response, with 58 percent saying that building a permanent space station on the Moon was not worth the risks and costs.

… One of the president's signature accomplishments on the domestic front — the passage of a Medicare overhaul with new coverage for prescription drugs — has yet to register much with the voters, the poll suggests. Twenty-nine percent said they thought the administration had made 'a lot' or 'some' progress on prescription drug relief. Fifty-four percent said the administration had made little or no progress."

The poll found that while 62 percent of independents support Bush's handling of terrorism, fewer than half, 45 percent, approve of the job he's is doing as president (compared with 50 percent overall). It also found that 45 percent of registered voters would chose an unnamed Democrat over Bush (43 percent) in the upcoming presidential elections. Bush comes off a little better in another poll conducted by the Washington Post, which found that he would win narrowly against a generic Democratic candidate 48 percent to 46 percent.

But the Postpoll shows the same general dissatisfaction with Bush's domestic policies:

"…while Bush retains the support of nearly six in 10 Americans, the public believes Democrats would do a better job on domestic issues, such as the economy, prescription drugs for the elderly, health insurance, Medicare, the budget deficit, immigration and taxes. And Bush has lost the advantage on education policy he once enjoyed.

… The poll makes it clear that neither Bush nor Democrats in Congress have been given a clear mandate by Americans to lead. It suggests that the fall presidential campaign may be driven by whether voters prefer a war president, in which case Bush has a prohibitive advantage, or one focused on the domestic concerns that favor Democrats.

… Though the public has clearly noted an uptick in the economy -- 51 percent approve of the job Bush is doing managing the economy -- four in 10 Americans still believe the economy is in recession, the poll found. By 58 percent to 39 percent, they rate the economy and not terrorism as the bigger problem facing the country. And when asked who they would prefer handling the nation's economy, more Americans favored Democrats in Congress (50 percent) than preferred Bush (43 percent), the first time in more than two years that Bush has failed to best the Democrats on this key issue."

It's not just ordinary voters who are getting impatient with Bush. Some of his policy proposals risk alienating some of his core constituency. The religious right is unhappy at the administration's less-than-categorical condemnation of gay marriage. And many conservatives are lamenting Bush's ever-expanding spending extravaganzas. The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial Tuesday entitled "The GOP is spending like a drunken sailor," and a new study by the conservative Heritage Foundation sounds the alarm about current levels of federal spending:

A press release for the Heritage report, entitled "The $pree of The Union: Bush, Congress And Your Money," says this:

"In all the hoopla surrounding the State of the Union Address, don’t forget a basic fact of life – money just doesn’t grow on trees. Whether families of businessmen, laborers or managers, young or old – everyone makes spending decisions based upon this fundamental reality. Except, in Washington, D.C.

Recently, significant increases have pushed federal spending to its highest level since World War II. The new Medicare drug benefit and the likely passage of the pork-laden omnibus spending bill will expand government further. In the annual appropriations process, fiscal discipline and priority-setting have been replaced by a budget process that encourages special interest spending."

Conservatives also are mad about Bush's big-ticket space plans and his immigration reform proposal, a move designed to court the Latino vote, but which, as conservatives see it, rewards law-breaking. The State of the Union address, timed so to take media attention away from the beginning Democratic primaries, cannot manage to gloss over the fact that Bush may have serious problems getting re-elected -- especially if one of the more moderate Democratic candidates like Kerry or Edwards wins the presidential nomination.

Here's what Paul Krugman, writing in the New York Times, had to say about Bush's prospects:

"Mr. Bush has already pushed through an expensive new Medicare benefit — without any visible source of financing. Reports say that tonight he'll propose additional, and even more expensive, new initiatives, like partial Social Security privatization — which all by itself would require at least $1 trillion in extra funds over the next decade. Where is all this money going to come from?

Judging from the latest CBS/New York Times Poll, these promises of something for nothing aren't likely to convince many people. It's not just that the bounce from Saddam's capture has already gone away. Unfavorable views of Mr. Bush as a person have reached record levels for his presidency. It seems fair to say that many Americans, like most of the rest of the world, simply don't trust him anymore."