Bush's Policies: Fair to All or Fairest for Rich?

by Jeffrey M. Jones, Gallup Poll Managing Editor

The debate over an economic stimulus program in Washington, D.C., delineates the policy differences between the Republican and Democratic Parties. While the parties agree on several of the matters being discussed, such as extending unemployment benefits and providing some sort of income tax relief to all Americans, one particular point of contention is President Bush's plan to reduce taxes on stock dividends. Some Democrats say this proposal will mainly benefit wealthy people, who are most likely to own stocks and thus pay taxes on stock dividends.

Gallup Polls show that Bush, who emphasizes that his economic stimulus plan will bring tax relief to all Americans, is vulnerable to the criticism that Republican policies favor the rich. However, this perception does not appear to have harmed views of Bush's performance as president or views of his policies more generally.

A Jan. 3-5 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll*, conducted prior to the formal announcement of Bush's economic stimulus plan, showed that a majority of Americans (51%) think Bush's policies favor the rich. Just 5% say his policies favor the middle class, and less than 1% believe they favor the poor. Roughly 4 in 10 Americans (41%) believe Bush's policies are fair to all groups. Perceptions on this matter have changed little since July, when 48% thought Bush's policies favored the rich and 41% thought they were fair to all groups.

Americans' views on the fairness of Bush's policies are strongly related to their political partisanship. Democrats overwhelmingly believe Bush's policies favor the rich (76%), while a nearly equal percentage of Republicans believe his policies are fair to all groups (75%). Independents are more likely to say that his policies favor the rich (59%), than to say they are fair to all groups (32%).

Bush's numbers on this measure compare favorably to his father's. Polls conducted in January and September 1992 found more than 6 in 10 Americans (63% and 61%, respectively) saying the elder Bush's policies favored the rich. Only 27% thought they were fair to all.

These data suggest that Republican presidents tend to be vulnerable to criticisms that they cater to the rich. Three Gallup Polls conducted between October 1994 and November 1998 asked a similar question (it did not have an explicit option of saying the policies were "fair to all groups") more generally about the Republican Party. In each of these polls, roughly 7 in 10 Americans said the Republican Party's policies favored the rich. (Views on the Democratic Party were much more divided, with a plurality saying their policies favor the middle class.)

So while most Americans believe the president pursues policies that favor the rich, this view is not as widely held about him as it was about his father in the early 1990s. And the Republican Party has typically been thought to favor wealthier people.

What Impact?

Related to the perception that Bush favors the rich is the fairly consistent feeling among Americans that big business has too much influence over his administration's decisions. A July 2002 poll, for example, found that 69% of Americans held this belief about the Bush administration, compared to 24% who did not. This poll was conducted at a time when the stock market was near its low point and the fallout from corporate scandals was still a hot topic. But polls conducted during quieter economic times show virtually the same results: 67% of Americans felt this way in July 2001, and 63% in April 2001.

However, the perception that Bush's policies work to the benefit of rich business tycoons has had little effect on his approval rating. At times when his approval rating was both very high (83% in January 2002) and very low (57% in July 2001), perceptions of his policies as being too friendly to the wealthy remained the same.

Additionally, despite Americans' consistent opinions that Bush's policies favor business and the wealthy, they still view Bush's policies favorably on the whole. A November 2002 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll indicated that 57% of Americans believe the policies Bush and the Republican congressional leaders are proposing will lead the country in the right direction, while 31% say they will lead the country in the wrong direction.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,000 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Jan. 3-5, 2003. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3%.

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