Americans Rate the President's Character

by Darren K. Carlson, Government and Politics Editor

The war with Iraq and the events leading up to it created a well-documented rally effect in public opinion. Perceptions of the way George W. Bush is handling his job as president jumped 13 points (from 58% to 71%) at the war's onset, and have remained between 69% and 71% since. A recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll* evaluated public perceptions of the president on a deeper level by asking Americans whether various personal characteristics apply to him. The rally effect is evident in the results of the characteristics tested.

Strong and Decisive Leadership?

Americans generally view the president as a strong and decisive leader. Eight in 10 Americans say that characteristic applies to Bush, while 19% believe it doesn't apply. The 80% who think Bush is a strong and decisive leader marks an all-time high on this measure for Bush, though 70% or more of Americans have felt this way since the fall of 2001.

Bush supporters -- primarily Republicans -- would argue that Bush's willingness to steer the United States and its allies toward war in Iraq is emblematic of strong and decisive leadership, while his opponents -- primarily Democrats -- might say it was a personal crusade or the result of failed international diplomacy. Breakdowns of the results on this question by political affiliation bear this out -- Republicans are more likely than Democrats or independents to think Bush is strong and decisive. Ninety-six percent of Republicans think Bush is a strong and decisive leader, compared with 77% of independents and 66% of Democrats.

Are You Inspired?

A separate item asked Americans whether they think Bush inspires confidence. Again, the rally effect is evident, as 70% think this quality applies to Bush. This represents a five-percentage-point increase from January of this year, and is the second-highest percentage of people saying Bush inspires confidence since he took office. His previous high reading, 75%, came less than a month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Significant gender and racial gaps exist on this measure. Men are somewhat more likely than women to say Bush inspires confidence (76% to 66%). Further, just over half of nonwhite Americans (55%) say this quality applies to Bush, compared with three-quarters of white Americans (75%).

Can You Trust Him?

Throughout his presidency, at least 6 in 10 Americans have applied the description of "honest and trustworthy" to Bush. The recent poll shows that 73% would describe him this way now, and 25% would not.

Again, this measure varies significantly along political and racial lines. While 79% of white Americans think Bush is honest and trustworthy, little more than half of nonwhite Americans (53%) think so.

Trust of Bush is not uniform across party lines. While essentially all of the Republicans (97%) think Bush is honest and trustworthy, the percentage decreases to 70% among independents and 49% among Democrats.

Does He Care About People Like You?

The belief that Bush "cares about the needs of people like you" has increased nine percentage points since January 2003 (from 56% to 65%). But generally, this is one item on which Bush's ratings have been good, but not stellar. The percentage of Americans saying that Bush cares about the needs of people like them has never broken 70%, even following the Sept. 11 attacks.

In Bush's presidential campaign, he promised to be a different type of Republican -- a "compassionate conservative." But most racial minorities and Democrats don't seem to think that Bush cares about their needs. Just 45% of nonwhites say this characteristic applies to Bush, compared with 71% of whites. Among Democrats, 37% describe the president this way, compared with 94% of Republicans). Further, 55% of those living in urban areas say Bush cares about their needs, compared with 67% of suburbanites and 74% of those who live in rural settings.

Bottom Line

The rally effect of the war with Iraq is clearly having a positive influence on the public's assessment of Bush's personal characteristics. But while behavioral characteristics (such as strong and decisive leadership) continue to be areas of strength for the president, ratings on more personal qualities such as honesty, inspiration, and his willingness to care about people are slightly lower, which primarily results from racial and political divides on these questions.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,009 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted April 5-6, 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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