Bush Approval, Social Security, Michael Jackson, Economy, Tom DeLay, Filibusters, the Pope, Vietnam, Hitler

Bush Approval

President George W. Bush's job approval rating is back at 48%. This is the lowest rating of any re-elected president at this point in a second term since Dwight Eisenhower -- although it's by no means dismal compared with what other presidents have seen at different points in their tenures. Bush's father was below 30% at one point in the summer of 1992, and Bill Clinton's ratings fell into the 30% range in his first term. Reporters have called to ask if these lower ratings for Bush mean his second-term agenda is doomed to failure. My answer: "No." Too much can change, and change quickly over the next few years for anyone to be generalizing at this point about Bush's second term.

Social Security

The president will be out and about this week continuing to push for Social Security reform -- in Galveston, Texas, Tuesday and in the D.C. suburbs on Friday. Not to be outdone, the Democrats will be hosting their own Social Security event in Washington this week.

The data on Social Security simply don't look great for the president. Bush's job approval rating on handling Social Security remains considerably lower than his overall rating. One recent question that asked Americans about a Social Security privatization plan found that opponents outnumbered supporters by almost 2-to-1. But regardless of how the question is asked, most polls show declining support for the concept. Furthermore, about half of Americans believe that Bush is attempting to dismantle the Social Security system. 

We see an interesting paradox of sorts when we attempt to get a fix on the priority that Americans attach to Social Security reform. Social Security scores relatively low when embedded in a list of issues that Congress and the president could tackle -- coming in below terrorism, healthcare costs, gas prices, and the economy. At the same time, 6 in 10 Americans say political leaders are moving too slowly to take up legislation that would address the Social Security system's ills. 

The upshot here is that although Americans have accepted the idea that Social Security has problems (indeed, recent Gallup polling shows that relatively few working Americans expect Social Security to be a major part of their retirement income), the Bush administration has not convinced the public that private investment accounts are the way to fix them. The current downward trend in the Dow probably isn't helping matters. 

As former President Bill Clinton and then-first lady Hillary Clinton learned in reference to healthcare reform in the 1990s, changing the way massive entitlement systems work is a major undertaking with a high risk of failure.

Michael Jackson

The Michael Jackson child molestation trial picked up again Monday in California. Some news reports have suggested that the prosecution will wrap up its part of the case this week.

The average American is not exposed to the testimony on a day-in and day-out basis, so public opinion is based purely on the (often lurid) details of the trial reported in the news. Still, it's interesting to note that if the American public were voting on the guilt or innocence of the pop star, Jackson would be convicted. Seventy percent of Americans say that the charges against Jackson are probably or definitely true. Just 15% believe they are probably or definitely not true. That's roughly what we have found in previous polling, although belief that Jackson is guilty is slightly down from the 75% who said the charges were true in a late February poll.

Economy

There's little question that Americans' views of the U.S. economy remain bleak. Gallup's new economic data show more than 6 in 10 say the economy is getting worse, rather than better -- and that's just one of a number of recent measures showing rampant economic pessimism. The Conference Board's consumer confidence numbers are due out Tuesday and although I'm writing this before they have been made public, I would be very much surprised if they, too, didn't show a drop in confidence.

Why are Americans currently so sour on the economy? When asked in our mid-April economic poll to name the biggest financial problems facing the U.S. economy, Americans identified energy prices and unemployment as the most significant issues -- followed by the war in Iraq, Social Security, healthcare costs, and a general lack of money. The big change over time has been the jump in the mention of energy costs in response to this question -- up from 5% in January and February to 17% last month and 19% last week.

It's a slightly different story when we ask Americans to name the most important financial problem facing their families. Here, a general "lack of money" is essentially tied with healthcare costs at the top of the list, followed by energy costs, worry about retirement savings, having too much debt, unemployment, and college expenses.

Bottom line: A smorgasbord of financial concerns is eroding Americans' optimism, and some of these concerns -- like healthcare costs -- surely won't be alleviated in the next few months.

Tom DeLay

Just what do Americans think about House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the Texas congressman who is now embroiled in various ethics controversies that he and his supporters say are being fueled by Democrats and the liberal media?

Gallup has asked about DeLay four times. Most recently, in an April 1-2, 2005, poll, 27% of Americans said they had a favorable opinion, while 31% had an unfavorable opinion; 42% didn't know enough about him to have an opinion either way. When Gallup first asked about DeLay in September 1999, 72% said they didn't know enough to have an opinion.

I found several other polls that have asked about DeLay recently. A CBS News poll conducted April 13-16 showed 7% of Americans had a favorable opinion and 22% a not favorable opinion. CBS gives respondents an explicit "or haven't you heard enough about _______ yet to have an opinion" response option, and usually finds big percentages opting to give no opinion, as was the case here.

A NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll (March 31-April 3) found 17% with a positive opinion of DeLay and 24% with a negative opinion. A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Monday showed 35% approved of the way Tom DeLay is "handling his job as majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives," while 38% disapproved.

Eliminate Filibusters?

In recent weeks, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and other Senate Republicans have led a campaign to change Senate rules to eliminate the filibuster that Democrats have used in some instances to block votes on Bush nominations for judges. It's a complex issue, but most polling I've seen over the past several months finds that the public is inclined to keep the filibuster rule, by a 50% to 40% margin in one NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, and by a 57% to 32% margin in a Newsweek poll. The new Washington Post/ABC News poll asked about changing Senate rules to make it easier for the Republicans to confirm Bush's judicial nominees and found 66% opposed, while only 26% were in favor.

Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI was installed as the 265th pope on Sunday. His election as pope was met with generally positive reaction from those Catholics in the United States who know enough about him to have an opinion, at least based on a quick poll of randomly sampled Catholics conducted by Gallup last week. Catholics didn't seem to be bothered by the fact that the pope served in the German army as a young man, by his advanced age (78), or even that he opposes allowing priests to marry. Catholics are bothered, however, by the fact the new pope opposes birth control for Catholics. 

The reaction of American Catholics in our poll to the new pope may have been muted, because it seems many Catholics simply go their own way and don't pay that much attention to the pope's teachings. Only 10% of Catholics polled indicated who the pope is affects their commitment to the Catholic Church a great deal. And most tellingly, 74% of Catholics say that, faced with a moral dilemma, they would follow their consciences rather than the teachings of the pope. 

This lack of faithful adherence to the pope exemplifies the challenge American Catholics pose for the Vatican. There's good news in that the percentage of the population who is Catholic has stayed nearly constant at about 25% over the past 15 years (by contrast, fewer and fewer Americans identify as Protestants as the ranks of those with no religion and "other" religions has grown). But Gallup data show that many are Catholic in name only -- they rarely if ever go to church and do not consider religion to be important in their daily lives.

Vietnam

Saturday marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon to the Communists, evoking memories of the famous pictures of the Marine helicopters lifting Americans and desperate Vietnamese off the top of the American embassy in Saigon.

There's little question that the average American considers the Vietnam War to have been a mistake. In fact, a majority of the public began to think the war was a mistake in the summer of 1968 (as the war was still raging), and have continued to think so across 12 separate polls conducted since that point. Most recently, in November 2000, 68% said that it was a mistake, while 24% said that it was not.

Hitler

Saturday will also be the 60th anniversary of Adolf Hitler's suicide, which is believed to have taken place in a Berlin bunker as the Allied armies moved into Berlin and it was clear that the Germans had lost the war.

We went back into Gallup's archives to see what types of questions The Gallup Poll was asking about Hitler some 60 years ago. In May 1945, just after his death had been reported, Gallup asked Americans, "Do you personally believe that Hitler is dead?" The results: 18% said yes, while 68% said no. By April 1947, when the question was asked again, a slight majority -- 57% -- believed he was dead. To my knowledge, Gallup has not asked the question in the years since, although speculation about Hitler and other Nazis living on in South America has provided the basis for numerous books and movie plots over the decades since the war ended.

Editor in Chief's Pulse of the Nation is a continuous review and discussion of Gallup Poll results on topics currently in the news. Dr. Frank Newport, editor in chief of The Gallup Poll, is the author of Polling Matters (Warner Books, 2004) and The Evangelical Voter, and has more than 15 years of experience directing the nation's oldest monitor of American public opinion.
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