Poll: Shaky Economy Is Top Concern

GENERIC stock market economy crash down dow nasdaq CBS/AP

In the aftermath of the war with Iraq, Americans have renewed concerns about the economy, which most see as in bad shape and the top problem for the government -- surpassing foreign policy, war and terrorism by a wide margin.

Concerns extend to Americans' personal finances as well, with many saying now is not the time for them to spend, and four in ten concerned about losing their own or a household member's job.

And while 36 percent see President George W. Bush's economic policies as a lot to blame for current economic conditions, 41 percent think the economy would be in good shape if 9/11 hadn't happened. Most think the 2001 tax cuts had no effect on the economy and a plurality thinks additional tax cuts – Bush's key strategy for encouraging economic growth – would have no effect on the economy now.


THE ECONOMY
In this latest CBS News Poll, 41 percent of the public volunteered the economy and jobs as the most important problem facing the country, making it the number one issue.

War, terrorism and foreign policy follow, mentioned by fewer than half as many. Domestic issues such as education and health care are a distant third and fourth place.

MOST IMPORTANT PROBLEM FOR COUNTRY

Now
Economy/jobs
41%
War/terrorism/foreign policy
18%
Education
4%
Health care
3%

Two weeks ago
Economy/jobs
33%
War/terrorism/foreign policy
19%
Education
4%
Health care
3%

Economic priorities have become more widespread in just the last two weeks. Just as the war with Iraq was winding down, 33 percent named the economy as the top concern.

Current concerns about the economy are not surprising in light of the public's views about how the economy is faring now. More Americans think the economy is doing badly than doing well, by 54 percent to 44 percent.

RATING THE ECONOMY

Good
44%
Bad
54%

These ratings resemble views of the economy just prior to the onset of the war with Iraq. In polls conducted during the war, positive perceptions of the economy surpassed negative views; but in polls conducted throughout the early part of this year, more than half the public thought the economy was doing poorly.

Americans think the economy has gotten worse, and eight in ten think it is not getting any better. By three to one, Americans think the economy has deteriorated in just the past year; 45 percent think it is worse today than it was a year ago, while 15 percent think it has improved in the past year. 39 percent think it is about the same as it was then.

STATE OF THE ECONOMY

In past year:
Better
15%
Worse
45%
Same
39%

Is getting:
Better
19%
Worse
28%
Same
52%

Most do not see any improvement in the near future. 52 percent think it is staying about the same, 28 percent think it is getting worse, and fewer than one in five believe the economy is improving.

BALANCING BUDGETS
Most think the best way of spurring economic growth would be through lowering the federal deficit instead of cutting taxes. 54 percent believe deficit reduction is the better route to growth, compared to 32 percent who think tax cuts are better.

BETTER WAY TO IMPROVE ECONOMY

Tax cuts
32%
Lower deficit
54%

In this anti-deficit frame of mind, most Americans do not want the federal government to spend more money on bailing out individual states at the risk of increasing the federal deficit. 57 percent think the federal government should not help out the states that are having trouble balancing their budgets (which they must do by law). 35 percent think the federal government should provide assistance to states that are having budget problems.

SHOULD FEDERAL GOVT. HELP STATES BALANCE THEIR BUDGETS?

Yes
35%
No
57%

Even those living in states with the most severe budgetary problems -- California, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Oregon and Texas-- think the states need to solve their budget problems without the help of the federal government (49 percent) rather than receive a bailout (42 percent).

ECONOMIC CONCERNS AND THE PRESIDENT
So far, the president receives little of the blame for current economic conditions, although his approval rating on handling the economy is -- and has been -- low. In this poll, more disapprove than approve of him; 42 percent approve of the way he is handling the economy, and 45 percent disapprove. During the war against Iraq, Bush's rating on handling the economy received a boost, but that has now dissipated, and current views are similar to ratings he has been receiving on the economy since last July.

BUSH'S HANDLING OF THE ECONOMY

Approve:
Now
42%
3/23-24
52%
7/2002
44%

Disapprove
Now
45%
3/23-24
38%
7/2002
45%

Despite his relatively weak economic approval ratings, more people attribute the weak economy to the events of September 11th than to Bush's policies. 36 percent think the current economic situation has a lot to do with Bush's policies, but 49 percent think the economy has only a little to do with them.

BUSH'S POLICIES' IMPACT ON ECONOMY

Now
A lot
36%
A little
49%
Nothing
9%

1/2002
A lot
27%
A little
50%
Nothing
16%


This has changed slightly in the last year. In January 2002, roughly half thought the economy had little to do with Bush's policies, but the percentage that thought Bush's policies had a lot of impact on the economy was slightly less.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 had an impact on current perceptions of the economy. 44 percent think the economy is good right now, but almost as many say it is bad but would be better if 9/11 hadn't happened. Only 11 percent think the economy would have been bad anyway.

THE ECONOMY AND 9/11

Economy is good now
44%
Economy would be good if 9/11 didn't happen
41%
Economy would be bad anyway
11%

And Bush's tax cuts -- both those enacted in 2001 and those proposed now -- are viewed as having relatively little impact on the economy, despite the administration's linking them with economic growth. 55 percent think the 2001 tax cuts made no difference to the economy, 21 percent thought they helped the economy, and 19 percent thought they hurt it.

Views of the effect of Bush's 2001 tax cuts have changed somewhat in the past few months. Earlier this year, more thought they had no effect on the economy, and fewer thought they were detrimental.

EFFECT OF 2001 TAX CUT ON ECONOMY

Now
Good
21%
Bad
19%
No difference
55%

1/2003
Good
21%
Bad
11%
No difference
65%


It should be noted that prior to the enactment of Bush's 2001 tax cuts, more than a third expected those cuts to help the economy, 38 percent thought they would have no effect, and 22 percent thought they would hurt the economy.

Most think additional tax cuts would do relatively little to spur economic growth. 43 percent think a large tax cut enacted now would have no impact on the economy, about a quarter thinks tax cuts now would be good for the economy, and over a quarter thinks it would be a bad idea right now.

EFFECT OF LARGE TAX CUT ON ECONOMY NOW
Good
25%
Bad
28%
No difference
43%

Non-economic evaluations of the President are much more positive than his economic approval rating. Overall, 67 percent approve of the job Bush is doing as president, and 75 percent approve of his handling of Iraq. While those ratings have also changed little in the past few months, current ratings on all three measures are down from those seen in a CBS News/New York Times Poll conducted two weeks ago.

EVALUATIONS OF GEORGE W. BUSH

Now
Overall
67%
Handling Iraq
75%
Handling economy
42%

Two weeks ago
Overall
73%
Handling Iraq
79%
Handling economy
46%

Bush receives higher overall job approval ratings from those who think the economy is in good shape or getting better, suggesting that how he handles the economy could have a profound impact on how his presidency is viewed.

The president receives mixed reviews on whether he shares the priorities of most Americans -- about half say he does, and half say he does not. That may suggest that Bush is not focusing on American's top priorities -- the economy and jobs -- to the extent he needs to.

DOES BUSH SHARE YOUR PRIORITIES FOR COUNTRY?

Yes
48%
No
46%

HITTING AMERICANS' POCKETBOOKS?
The worsening economy has affected some Americans directly, and many say that they are not in a position to buy things they want right now. Fear of losing their jobs is also in the back of many Americans' minds.

20 percent say their financial situation is better than it was a year ago, but slightly more say they are worse off now. 58 percent say their finances have not changed in the past year.

FINANCIAL SITUATION COMPARED TO A YEAR AGO

Better off now
20%
Worse off now
22%
Same as a year ago
58%

There are more ominous signs of economic uncertainty, as reflected in attitudes toward spending. 59 percent say that now is a bad time for them to spend money, while only 39 percent think they are in a good position to buy the things they would like to have.

IS NOW THE TIME TO BUY?

Yes, in a good position
39%
No, bad time to buy
59%

Those most reluctant to spend now are those with the lowest incomes. Republicans are more likely then Democrats to say they are in a position to buy now.

A sizable segment of the public expresses concerns about possible unemployment. While six in ten are not very or not at all worried about losing their jobs, 39 percent are concerned about losing their job or having someone else in their household lose their job in the next year. Again, those in the lowest income brackets are most likely to fear for their job security.

CONCERN ABOUT LOSING JOB

Now
Very
20%
Somewhat
19%
Not concerned
59%

10/2002
Very
31%
Somewhat
20%
Not concerned
48%


But there is one positive note -- last October, concerns about job security were higher. Then, 31 percent were very concerned about a possible job loss in their household.

43 percent say the current federal budget deficit is affecting their finances. Those with incomes under $30,000 a year -- presumably more dependent on the government's social programs -- are most likely to think the deficit is hurting their finances.

THE STOCK MARKET
Opinions about the stock market are mixed; 43 percent think it is good right now, but slightly more -- 46 percent -- think it is fairly or very bad. Although that is a more positive assessment than last August, when 22 percent thought it was good and 68 percent thought it was bad, it is far different from views of the market just after Bush took office, in January 2001. Then, 60 percent thought the market was good, and 24 percent thought it was bad.

RATING THE STOCK MARKET

Now
Good
43%
Bad
46%

1/2002
Good
60%
Bad
24%


GEORGE W. BUSH AND GEORGE H. W. BUSH
The public's priorities and views of the economy in this post-war poll are reminiscent of the public's views twelve years ago, as the 1991 Gulf War was winding down, when the economy also dominated the public's concerns.

In April 1991, 32 percent named the economy and jobs as the number one priority for the country, while 9 percent volunteered the Persian Gulf and foreign policy as the top concern. Today, the economy and jobs also far outdistance the public's concerns about foreign policy issues or war.

In 1991, views of the economy were similar to those held now; 42 percent of the public thought the economy was in good shape, and 57 percent thought it was in bad shape.

RATING THE ECONOMY

Now
Good
44%
Bad
54%

4/1991
Good
42%
Bad
57%


Then, as now, negative views of the economy were paired with a bleak assessment of its direction, with only about one in five thinking that the economy was on the road to recovery.

ECONOMY IS…

Now
Getting better
19%
Getting worse
28%
Staying same
52%

4/1991
Getting better
18%
Getting worse
33%
Staying same
47%


The Persian Gulf War had an enormous impact on the public's views of then-President George H.W. Bush, causing his job approval rating to soar, from 62 percent just before the war began to 83 percent during the war. But that success was short-lived; as the economy worsened, and the public focused on priorities at home, George H.W. Bush's job approval rating dropped to 75 percent by June and was 51 percent by the end of that year. Economic conditions, and the president's response to them, are widely viewed as the cause of his loss of public approval.

President George W. Bush experienced a similar surge in public approval after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, reaching a job approval rating of 90 percent by October 2001. His job approval rating has steadily declined since then, and was 58 percent just before the war against Iraq. He experienced an upward bounce during the war, to 71 percent, but that has declined a bit in this poll.

PRESIDENTIAL JOB APPROVAL

George W. Bush
After war was over
67%
During war
71%
Before war began
58%

George H.W. Bush
After war was over
80%
During war
83%
Before war began
62%


Both presidents receive similar ratings on their handling of the economy, although George W. Bush is viewed slightly more positively than his father was. In April 1991, 38 percent approved of the way George H.W. Bush was handling the economy, and 48 percent disapproved. In this poll, 42 percent approve and 45 percent disapprove of the way his son is handling the economy.

HANDLING OF THE ECONOMY

George W. Bush, 4/2003
Approve
42%
Disapprove
45%

George H.W. Bush, 4/1991
Approve
38%
Disapprove
48%




This poll was conducted among a nationwide random sample of 925 adults, interviewed by telephone April 26-27, 2003. The error due to sampling could be plus or minus three percentage points for results based on the entire sample.

For detailed information on how CBS News conducts public opinion surveys, click here.

  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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