Bush Averages on Foreign Affairs, Economy Mediocre by Historical Standards

by Jeffrey M. Jones

Second term bringing down averages

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- Gallup has long tracked public ratings of presidents' handling of the economy and foreign affairs -- first during the Nixon administration and doing so on a regular basis since the Reagan administration. The most recent updates, from an April 28-30 USA Today/Gallup poll, show George W. Bush at 34% approval on the economy and 33% on foreign affairs, which are the worst for him thus far. In his first term, Bush's ratings for handling both issues were about the same or better than those of other recent presidents. But as his overall approval rating has sunk in his second term, his historical standing on these issues has slipped to a more middling position.

Bush has averaged a 48% approval rating for his handling of the economy and a 52% approval rating for his handling of foreign affairs during his presidency. His overall job approval average to date -- 57% -- tops his score in both areas. In his first term in office, Bush averaged 53% approval on the economy and 57% on foreign affairs. So far in his second term, he has averaged 40% approval on both.

Bush in Historical Perspective

Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, received the best marks for handling foreign affairs of any recent president. The elder Bush averaged 63% approval on foreign affairs during his four years in office. A February 2002 Gallup release pointed out that the younger Bush's foreign affairs average rating rivaled that of his father (See "Bush's Foreign Affairs Approval Ratings Among Highest Recorded" in Related Items).

However, since that time the war in Iraq has served to drag down the current president's foreign affairs ratings. Bush's 52% average on international matters now rates on par with Bill Clinton, who averaged 51%. Bush still rates ahead of Ronald Reagan, who averaged 44%. Jimmy Carter averaged 46% approval on foreign affairs, though Gallup asked the public to evaluate him on foreign affairs just four times.

Foreign Affairs Approval Averages
Recent Presidents

Average

Number of Ratings

%

George H.W. Bush

63

20

George W. Bush

52

58

Bill Clinton

51

69

Ronald Reagan

44

33

While the elder Bush was the most highly rated president on foreign affairs, his 35% average approval rating on the economy is easily the worst of the most recent presidents. Clinton had the highest economic approval average at 57%, including a lofty 69% in his second term. George W. Bush's recent decline on this issue has left Clinton as the only recent president with an average economic approval rating above 50%. Reagan averaged just 45% approval on the economy, though it was slightly better in his second term (47%) than his first (43%).

Economic Approval Averages
Recent Presidents

Average

Number of Ratings

%

Bill Clinton

57

70

George W. Bush

48

70

Ronald Reagan

45

43

George H.W. Bush

35

19

If George W. Bush's 40% approval average on foreign affairs thus far in his second term persists, it would be the lowest term average for a president. Reagan currently has the lowest four-year term average rating on international matters at 42%, from 1981-1984. Bush's 40% average approval rating on the economy would be second worst to his father's 35% average.

Economic and Foreign Affairs Approval Averages
by Term, Recent Presidents

Foreign Affairs

Economy

%

%

Reagan I

42

43

Reagan II

47

47

G.H.W. Bush

63

35

Clinton I

46

45

Clinton II

55

69

G.W. Bush I

57

53

G.W. Bush II (to date)

40

40

Patterns of Approval

Issue ratings versus overall job approval

Even though the economy and foreign affairs are arguably the president's two main responsibilities, a president's overall job approval rating apparently takes into account much more than that. In fact, both George W. Bush and Reagan had overall approval averages that were higher than their approval ratings on both the economy and foreign policy.

Presidents' Overall Job Approval Averages and Approval Ratings on Issues
Recent Presidents

Overall

Foreign Affairs

Economy

%

%

%

Ronald Reagan

53

44

45

George H.W. Bush

61

63

35

Bill Clinton

55

51

57

George W. Bush

57

52

48

For Reagan, that may owe to his strong personal appeal. For Bush, his higher overall approval rating is likely due to the strong marks he has received for handling the terrorism issue. His approval rating for handling terrorism has consistently been higher than his overall approval rating, and significantly higher than his ratings for handling other issues, such as healthcare, immigration, and energy policy.

Clinton's and the elder Bush's overall averages fell in between their ratings on the economy and foreign affairs, though in both cases the overall average was closer to their average on their stronger issue (foreign affairs for Bush, the economy for Clinton).

Economy ratings versus foreign affairs ratings over time

As Bush's 40% second term averages on foreign affairs and the economy suggest, the two ratings often track each other closely. That has generally been the case during Bush's presidency, though in the immediate post-Sept. 11 period his foreign affairs rating tended to outpace his economic rating.

Reagan's ratings on the two issues also tended to mirror each other while he was president.

The trend lines on the elder Bush's ratings offer a stark contrast. Throughout his term in office, the elder Bush's foreign affairs ratings were significantly better than his economic ratings, even before the recession of 1991.

Clinton's economic ratings were superior to his foreign affairs ratings as the economy boomed in his second term in office. But in his first term he scored similarly on both counts.

Survey Methods

These averages are based results from telephone interviews with randomly selected national samples of approximately 1,000 adults, aged 18 years and older. For each president, the reported average is an average of the president's yearly averages on the two issues. This controls for the fact that some presidents received more frequent ratings at certain points of their presidencies. This avoids having those more heavily updated measures distorting the president's overall average.

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