Introduction and Summary

Six months into her husband’s presidency, Laura Bush has made a positive impression on the American public. A strong majority (64%) has a favorable opinion of the first lady, and most approve of the way she’s handling her job. Although her predecessor, Hillary Clinton, drew a comparable favorability rating of 60% at this point in her tenure, Mrs. Clinton was a far more divisive figure.

In May 1993, nearly three-in-ten Americans had already formed a negative opinion of Mrs. Clinton, compared to 17% who have an unfavorable impression of Mrs. Bush. Eight years ago, half of Republicans had an unfavorable view of Hillary Clinton; today, just a quarter of Democrats feel negatively toward Laura Bush. And the striking gender gap in opinion about Hillary Clinton has virtually disappeared under Laura Bush. Men, who had a mixed view of Mrs. Clinton, are just as likely as women to have a favorable view of Mrs. Bush.

Still, Mrs. Bush’s appeal is less than universal. Blacks are divided in their view of the first lady: 37% view her favorably and 39% have a negative impression of her. In addition, young Americans seem less impressed with Mrs. Bush than do their older counterparts – 53% of those under age 30 have a favorable opinion of her compared to 73% of those age 50 and older.

While she is generally well liked, it is clear that – unlike Hillary Clinton – she is something of a blank slate for many Americans. When asked to choose which recent first lady has best embodied the role, many more Americans choose her more publicly visible predecessors – Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush and Mrs. Clinton – over the current first lady.

President Bush, meanwhile, also continues to demonstrate strong personal appeal among the public, in spite of his middling job performance ratings. Bush’s personal favorability stands at 61% – virtually the same as in January shortly before his inauguration. The president’s current job approval rating of 52% approve – 27% disapprove represents a slight improvement from June (50%- 33%).

The president continues to have difficulty generating much public interest in his activities. His generally successful trip to the G-8 summit in Genoa, Italy barely registered with the public. Just 6% said they followed the visit very closely, while another 21% followed it fairly closely. Interest in this trip was less than for his June visit to Europe, which itself attracted unusually little attention (10% followed it very closely, 25% fairly closely).

The latest Pew Research Center survey, conducted July 2-12 among 1,003 adults (with a supplemental survey conducted July 18-22 among 555 adults), shows a modest decline in the Republican Party’s favorability – from 56% to 48% – since the beginning of the year. The Democratic Party’s rating is largely unchanged at 58%. Perhaps surprisingly, despite the recent spate of negative news stories about the FBI, most Americans (61%) have a favorable opinion of the law enforcement agency, down from 71% two years ago.

First Impressions

Nearly six-in-ten Americans (58%) approve of the way Laura Bush is handling her job as first lady. Only 8% disapprove, while 34% have not formed an opinion yet. This approval rating is comparable to early readings of Hillary Clinton and Nancy Reagan, though in both cases there were more detractors and fewer people who hadn’t made up their minds.

When asked what one word they would use to describe Laura Bush, the public offers up a variety of complimentary terms. “Nice” tops the list followed by “lady” or “ladylike.” Rounding out the top five are “classy,” “intelligent” and “quiet.” Overall, positive descriptions outweigh negative ones by a margin of 41%-10%. Nearly half of the responses (49%) were neutral in tone.

Again reactions to Laura Bush offer a sharp contrast to Hillary Clinton. In March 1996, Clinton was described much more pointedly. Words like intelligent, smart, aggressive and domineering all showed up in her top ten list.

Limited Role

Most Americans (61%) believe that Mrs. Bush has less influence with the president on matters of politics and policy than other first ladies. Just 17% think she has more influence than other first ladies, and 18% are undecided. In the first year of the Reagan administration, the public was more evenly divided about the role of Nancy Reagan. More than a third (36%) thought Mrs. Reagan had more influence than other first ladies, and 40% thought she had less. By the end of Reagan’s presidency, opinions had shifted dramatically: 70% thought Mrs. Reagan had more influence than other first ladies, only 8% said she had less influence.

Still, a plurality says that, despite her limited role, Mrs. Bush’s level of influence is appropriate. Nearly half (47%) say she exerts the right amount of influence on the administration. Less than a quarter (23%) say she has too little influence, only 6% say too much, and 24% don’t have an opinion. Early on in Bill Clinton’s first term, the public had more critical views about Hillary Clinton’s role. While just under half (49%) said she had the right amount of influence in the Clinton administration, fully 40% said she had too much influence. Only 7% said Hillary had too little influence and hardly anyone had no opinion.

Republicans are much more content than Democrats with the role Mrs. Bush is playing within the administration. Fully 70% say she has just the right amount of influence. This compares with only 40% of Democrats. Interestingly, Democrats would like to see Mrs. Bush play a more prominent role in the administration – 36% say she has too little influence, while 6% say she has too much.

Popular But Undefined

In spite of the positive ratings Mrs. Bush is receiving at this early stage of her husband’s presidency, she has yet to make a strong impression. Fewer than one-in-ten Americans (6%) choose Laura Bush as the ideal first lady, far less than those who opt for her recent predecessors. The public divides evenly among the three remaining choices: 31% name Hillary Clinton, 30% cite Barbara Bush and 29% choose Nancy Reagan.

Not surprisingly, there are sharp partisan patterns on this question. Republicans divide fairly evenly between Barbara Bush and Nancy Reagan (44% and 38%, respectively). Only 9% of Republicans choose Laura Bush. A plurality of Democrats (55%) choose Hillary Clinton, but nearly four-in-ten opt for one of the GOP first ladies. Independents have no clear favorite.