Introduction and Summary

The public’s view of George W. Bush’s first month in office is remarkably unremarkable. Despite the extraordinary path he took to the White House, Americans are reacting to Bush in much the same way they responded to his predecessors. Bush’s modest February job approval rating (53%) is comparable to ratings accorded Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan in the first weeks of their administrations, but significantly below those given one-term presidents George Bush Sr. and Jimmy Carter.

In typical fashion, many Americans are reserving judgment about what they have heard or seen about the new president in his first month in office. But for now, most are inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. About six-in-ten could articulate things they like about Bush, while far fewer (40%) could cite anything they dislike about him.

Contrary to the widely-articulated opinion in Washington that the press has been too easy on Bush, fewer Americans think that coverage of the new president has been fair than felt that way about Clinton and Bush’s father early in their terms.

An even smaller percentage thinks the press has been fair to Clinton since he left office, despite the public’s generally negative view of the former president’s pardon of financier Marc Rich and Clinton’s other questionable activities on his way out of the White House.1 It may be a matter of the amount of coverage as much as its tone and substance. A 53% majority says there has been too much coverage of the former president’s activities, and a sizable minority (28%) says there has been too little coverage of the current occupant of the White House.

The Pew Research Center’s nationwide survey of 1,513 adults, conducted Feb. 14-19, finds little movement in opinion on tax cuts, Bush’s signature issue, since he took office, although much has been made about the increasing political momentum for his plan. Overall, a modest plurality (43%) backs Bush’s tax cut, although many fewer people favor using the budget surplus for a tax cut than for shoring up Social Security and Medicare. Equally important, a large majority continues to think the president’s tax cut will benefit some people more than others — and 79% of this group believes that the rich will be advantaged over middle class and poor people. It is probably not surprising then that more Americans believe that the main goal of tax reduction should be to stimulate the economy, rather than to provide tax relief for people like themselves.

In that regard, more Americans identify economic concerns as the nation’s top problem — 26% cited such concerns in the new poll, up from 15% in August 1999. In particular, more respondents volunteered worries about energy costs and the prospects of a recession. The survey also found significantly fewer Americans satisfied with national conditions than just a month ago (46% vs. 55%) — but that appears more politically based than economic, as dissatisfaction spiked mostly among Democrats and liberals.

Personality Bush’s Strong Suit

Just as during the campaign, Bush’s personal qualities are clearly serving him well in these first few weeks of his presidency. When respondents were asked in an open-ended format what they have liked most about Bush so far, personal traits were named more often than policy positions or political traits.

The top individual responses related to Bush’s honesty and integrity. These traits held the most appeal for Republicans — 18% cited this as what they like most about Bush, compared to only 4% of independents and 3% of Democrats. Bush’s tax proposal was also named frequently as were his character, his religious faith, his willingness to keep his campaign promises, and his calm, dignified manner.

When respondents were asked what they disliked most about Bush so far, policy positions trumped personal qualities, although more than half couldn’t come up with an answer. The president’s tax proposal topped the list of complaints. This was followed by criticisms over the way he was elected. Other dislikes included his stand on abortion and his cabinet appointments, as well as assertions that he is not a good public speaker and that he’s arrogant and cocky.

Fully 57% of those asked either gave no answer or said they could think of nothing they dislike about the president — far more than the 39% who did not offer a positive impression. Even among Democrats a large proportion (38%) couldn’t come up with a reason for disliking Bush.