Bush Not Reliving His Father's Economic Nightmare

by Lydia Saad and Frank Newport

Consumer ratings are depressed, but not at 1991 levels

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- The almost mythological spectacle of President George W. Bush's finishing a war begun by his president father 12 years ago makes comparing the two presidencies impossible to avoid. Each man emerged triumphant from a perceived military success in Iraq, only to face a struggling economy, and an election less than two years away. The elder Bush failed to convince voters he was up to the economic task at hand, and went down to defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton in November 1992. So, with similar economic challenges confronting the United States today, the natural question is: will the same forces that drove his father into early retirement dash Bush II's own re-election hopes?

The respective periods immediately following the conclusions of the first and second Gulf wars -- when the public's political and economic evaluations were at postwar-rally-high levels -- represent important points of comparison for the two Bush presidencies. For the elder Bush, this occurred around March 1991. For George W. Bush, it is now.

A review of Gallup polling data from these two periods gives us mixed indications of whether the current economic environment is as bad -- or is not as bad -- as it was in 1991. Public perceptions about the economy are certainly no worse today than they were in 1991, and in some respects they are better.

One of the most striking findings, and one with positive implications for Bush II, is that the number of Americans who believe the economy is in a recession today -- 56% -- compares favorably to the 81% who believed the country was in a recession in March 1991. Furthermore, only 35% characterize the situation today as a "serious" or "moderate" recession (as opposed to a "mild" recession or no recession), compared to a majority (59%) who felt this way in March 1991.

Is the U.S. Economy in Recession?

This difference is reflected to a lesser degree in another rating of economic conditions. A majority of Americans today, 57% -- compared to 44% in March 1991 -- describe business conditions in their own communities as either "very good" or "good."

Perhaps reflecting this divergence in consumer confidence, Americans today give Bush II a somewhat higher approval rating for his handling of the economy than Bush I received right after the conclusion of the first Gulf War. Almost half of Americans, 49%, now approve of the way Bush is handling the economy and 45% disapprove. In March 1991, just 37% approved and 57% disapproved of Bush I on the economy.

But while the elder Bush had lower economic approval ratings than his son now enjoys, Bush I's overall job approval rating was much higher. In March 1991, Bush I's job approval rating stood at a near-record high of 87%, while the current president's job approval rating is now at a much lower 70%. Both presidents' overall job approval ratings were high because of the perceived success in their respective wars with Iraq, although Bush I's rating zoomed higher in March 1991 than his son's has over the last several weeks as the current war with Iraq has wound down.

As a result, Bush I had an extremely large approval gap -- 50 points -- between his overall job rating and his rating on the economy. Bush II's approval gap is just 21 points.

Bush Approval Ratings Comparison

 

Overall Job Approval

Job Approval Handling Economy

Gap (Overall Approval minus Economy Approval)

%

%

%

Bush II -- April 2003

70

49

21

Bush I -- March 1991

87

37

50

These "gap" data suggest that the public in 1991 was making a sharper distinction between Bush I's handling of foreign policy (as reflected in his overall approval rating) and his performance on the economy than is the case for Bush II today. Thus, as the rally effect and afterglow of the Persian Gulf War began to fade in 1991 and into 1992, the elder Bush was left with a very weak economic leg to stand on. As the current Bush's overall job approval ratings fade in the weeks and months ahead (as they almost inevitably will), he will be left with what appears to be a somewhat stronger economic standing.

All of this is the good news for the current president Bush.

Today's Economic Trouble Spots

The bad news starts with the fact that a majority of Americans think the economy is in a recession. Regardless of how this compares with 1991, that perception provides a toehold for the Democrats to use as they attempt to criticize the president on his stewardship of the economy over the two-plus years since he took office.

A second challenge for Bush centers on Americans' views of their own personal financial situations. After a streak of strong consumer optimism during the late 1990s, Americans' feelings about their finances have fallen back to the same low levels seen at the end of Bush I's term in 1991 and 1992.

Today, only 31% of Americans feel they are financially better off than they were a year ago; 29% feel their situation is the same, while 39% say they are worse off. This is nearly identical to Gallup's March 1991 reading. By comparison, at the peak of consumers' financial wellness perceptions in January 1999, 58% said they were better off and only 21% felt they were worse off than they had been the year before.

Perceptions of Personal Financial Situation
Compared to a Year Ago

At the same time, looking forward, Americans remain fairly optimistic about their personal finances. Sixty-three percent currently believe that at this time next year, they will be financially better off than they are now. This is slightly higher than the 56% who felt this way in March 1991 and not much worse than the high point of 71% recorded in March 1998. This figure reached as low as 33% in 1979, toward the end of Jimmy Carter's term, and 37% during the 1982 recession.

Americans' outlook for the economy as a whole is more troubling. Only 36% believe that economic conditions in the country as a whole are getting better, while 51% say they are getting worse. This is quite similar to the situation just before Bush took office in January 2001, when only 32% of Americans perceived the economy as getting better. But there have been ups and downs in the years since. After declining through much of 2001, the "getting better" figure climbed to 53% in April 2002, but subsequently fell back into the 20s and 30s, where it has been for the past nine months.

The current optimism level is very similar to perceptions recorded on this measure in July 1991. At that time, just a few months after the Gulf War ended, 34% saw the economy improving and 51% saw it worsening.

Right now, do you think that economic conditions in the country as a whole are getting better or getting worse?

The Outlook for Bush II

Many factors will influence who wins next year's election, including world events, the war on terrorism, and the person chosen to be Bush's Democratic opponent. Still, Americans' take on the economy and their reaction to Bush's economic agenda are likely to be very important.

The first President Bush hurt himself with the electorate by not taking more aggressive steps to deal with the economic situation -- to some degree blowing into the wind with the accurate, but politically unpopular, assertion that the recession was over. Bush II seems intent on not repeating this mistake, already taking a prominent role in promoting his solution to the economic situation -- tax cuts. This economic assertiveness, combined with the public's somewhat cheerier perceptions about the current economic situation, suggest that the economy will be less of a liability for Bush II than it was for his father. But, as most veteran political observers would underscore, the 18 months between now and the 2004 election are a virtual lifetime, in which almost anything could happen.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected samples of 1,001 national adults, 18 years and older, conducted April 22-23, 2003; 1,011 national adults, conducted April 14-16, 2003; and 1,018 national adults, conducted April 7-9, 2003. For results based on these samples, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

Do you think the economy is now in a recession, or not?

 

Yes

No

No opinion

%

%

%

2003 Apr 22-23

56

41

3

2003 Mar 24-25

41

54

5

2002 Nov 22-24

52

45

3

2002 Oct 3-6 ^

55

40

5

2002 Jul 29-31

46

50

4

2002 Jun 28-30

52

45

3

2002 May 6-9

45

53

2

2002 Apr 8-11

45

52

3

2002 Mar 8-9 ^

56

38

6

2001 Nov 8-11

59

38

3

2001 Oct 11-14

49

49

2

2001 Sep 21-22

52

43

5

2001 Sep 7-10

51

43

6

2001 May 10-14

33

62

5

2001 Apr 6-8

42

52

6

2001 Mar 5-7 ^

31

64

5

2001 Feb 1-4 ^

44

49

7

1994 May 20-22

35

61

4

1994 Feb 26-28

34

62

4

1993 Dec 4-6

45

50

5

1992 Sep 11-15

79

19

2

1992 Jan 3-6

84

14

2

1991 Mar

81

16

4

^

Asked of a half sample.



Do you think we are in -- [ROTATED: a mild recession, a moderate recession, or a serious recession]?

COMBINED RESPONSES (Q.8-9)

 

Serious recession

Moderate recession

Mild recession

No, not in recession

No
opin-
ion

2003 Apr 22-23

10%

25

21

41

3

1991 Mar 9-11

21%

38

29

9

3



 

Trends for Comparison:

Do you think we are in an economic recession, or not? Do you think we are in a mild recession, or a moderate recession or a serious recession? (Source: Los Angeles Times Poll)

 

Serious recession

Moderate recession

Mild
recession

No, not
in reces-
sion

No
opin-
ion

%

%

%

%

%

2002 Dec 12-15

13

24

24

35

4

2002 Aug 22-25

11

23

25

36

5

2002 Jan 31-Feb 2

18

34

29

15

4

2001 Sep 13-14

9

19

23

41

8

1997 Sep 6-9

7

16

12

59

6

1997 Feb 5-6

6

14

13

62

5

1996 Oct 24-27

12

15

16

52

5

1996 Sep 7-10

8

14

16

53

9

1996 Aug 3-6

11

15

19

47

8

1995 Jun 9-11

12

20

21

39

8

1995 Mar 15-19

13

18

20

45

4

1994 Jul 23-26

16

20

17

41

6

1994 Apr 16-19

12

22

17

44

5

1994 Jan 15-19

20

20

18

37

5

1993 Dec 4-7

22

26

18

29

5

1993 Sep 25-28

29

27

16

24

4

1993 Jun 12-14

25

27

18

26

4

1993 Feb 18-19

25

25

15

30

5

1993 Jan 14-17

27

27

17

25

4

1992 Oct 24-26

46

30

12

9

3

1992 Oct 2-5

45

26

15

11

3

1992 Aug 20-21

45

27

16

9

3

1992 Aug 12-14

45

31

13

8

3

1992 Jul 7-9

42

33

12

10

3

1992 Mar 27-29

35

31

18

13

3

1992 Jan 31-Feb 2

41

34

14

8

3

1991 Nov 21-24

33

35

17

12

3

1991 Sep 21-25

30

33

19

14

4

1991 Jun 28-30

32

33

18

14

3

1991 Mar 9-11

21

38

29

9

3

1991 Feb 15-17

23

33

28

13

3



How would you describe business conditions in your community -- would you say they are very good, good, not too good, or bad?

 

Very good

Good

Not too good

Bad

No opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2003 Apr 7-9

7

50

33

9

1

2001 Apr 6-8

13

54

25

6

2

1998 Mar 20-22

23

54

16

6

1

1997 Aug 22-25

15

50

25

9

1

1996 Mar 8-10

13

58

21

6

2

1991 Jul 11-14

5

43

37

12

3

1991 May 16-19

6

44

37

12

2

1991 Mar 21-24

5

39

37

18

1

1990 Jul 19-22

10

47

30

11

2

1975 Jan 10-15

4

37

39

17

3

1971 Feb 19-22

5

39

37

12

7

1970 Jul 31-Aug 2

9

44

30

9

7

1964 Nov 20-25

17

55

20

5

4

1964 Jun 25-30

13

44

28

9

6

1964 Feb 28-Mar 5

11

44

31

9

5

1963 Apr 4-9

10

45

31

10

3

1962 Dec 13-18

12

52

26

6

4

1962 Oct 19-24

10

45

30

8

7

1962 Aug 23-28

10

47

30

7

6

1962 Jul 26-31

8

45

32

8

7

1962 Jun 28-Jul 3

14

47

28

6

6

1961 Oct 19-24

9

45

33

9

4



Do you approve or disapprove of the way George W. Bush is handling -- [RANDOM ORDER]?

  1. The economy

 


Approve

Dis-
approve

No
opinion

%

%

%

2003

2003 Apr 14-16

49

45

6

2003 Mar 29-30

49

47

4

2003 Mar 24-25

52

42

6

2003 Mar 14-15

44

52

4

2003 Feb 3-6

44

52

4

2003 Jan 31-Feb 2

47

48

5

2003 Jan 23-25

46

49

5

2003 Jan 10-12

48

47

5

2003 Jan 3-5

49

47

4


Approve

Dis-
approve

No
opinion

2002

2002 Dec 9-10

49

47

4

2002 Nov 8-10

55

39

6

2002 Oct 21-22

49

44

7

2002 Jul 26-28

52

43

5

2002 Jul 5-8

58

36

6

2002 Jun 28-30

63

33

4

2002 May 20-22

61

29

10

2002 Apr 5-7 ^

60

33

7

2002 Mar 22-24

65

29

6

2002 Mar 1-3

64

31

5

2002 Feb 4-6

66

30

4

2002 Jan 25-27

64

30

6


Approve

Dis-
approve

No
opinion

2001

%

%

%

2001 Nov 2-4 ^

71

24

5

2001 Oct 5-6

72

23

5

2001 Jul 10-11

54

36

10

2001 May 18-20

51

41

8

2001 Apr 20-22 ^

55

38

7

2001 Mar 9-11

55

32

13

2001 Feb 1-4

53

27

20



Get Articles in Related Topics:


Gallup http://www.gallup.com/poll/8314/Bush-Reliving-Fathers-Economic-Nightmare.aspx
Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A
+1 202.715.3030