Introduction and Summary

President Bush’s tax-cut plan is getting a tepid reception from the public and has failed to stem a steady erosion of his ratings on the economy. Barely four-in-ten Americans (43%) approve of his handling of the economy, while 48% disapprove. This marks the first time in Bush’s presidency a Pew survey has shown his economic rating in negative territory. His approval mark on tax policy is equally low (42%), despite a high-profile campaign on behalf of his tax plan.

With attention focused on possible war in Iraq and threats of terrorism at home, only about a quarter of the public (26%) is following reports about the president’s tax plan very closely. That is far fewer than the number following the debate over Iraq or even the high price of gas. Casting further doubt on the proposal, more Americans favor paying for higher military spending by scaling back previously enacted tax cuts than with reductions in domestic programs or by adding to the deficit. However, raising taxes is the least preferred option for underwriting increased defense costs.

The latest Pew Research Center survey of 1,254 Americans, conducted Feb. 12-18, shows that events abroad and at home are weighing heavily on Americans. Roughly half (53%) name international issues ­ mostly a possible war in Iraq ­ as the top problems facing the country, while 29% volunteer economic issues. Concerns about both overseas matters and economic issues have increased significantly over the past year, and this anxiety is also reflected in the recent decline in satisfaction with national conditions (“Confidence in Country’s Course at Lowest Ebb Since Bush Took Office,” Jan. 31, 2003).

Bush’s overall job approval rating has slipped to 54%, down four points since last month and seven points since December. The president’s handling of the threat of terrorism remains a strong point ­ fully two-thirds approve of his performance in that area. And a solid majority (56%) approves of his handling of the Iraq crisis, unchanged since October. But positive assessments of his economic policy have slipped from 49% in October to 43% in the current survey.

Politically, the president has been losing ground ­ both on the economy and in his overall ratings ­ among independents. Just 36% of independents approve of his handling of the economy, down from 42% in January. His overall job rating among independents has slipped from 57% in January to 50% in the current survey. There also continues to be a strong partisan cast to Bush’s job approval, with more than eight-in-ten Republicans (84%) and just a third of Democrats (32%) giving him positive marks.

The survey shows the public has become somewhat more supportive of the freedom of the press in covering national security issues than in the fall of 2001, during the war in Afghanistan. The number who believe the government should be able to censor news stories it believes could threaten national security has declined, from 53% to 42%, since November 2001. And a growing majority (78%, up from 64%) prefers that coverage of war be neutral rather than pro-American.