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Americans Down On The Economy

Americans are increasingly pessimistic about the direction of the nation's economy, according to a CBS News poll. Nearly half the public now thinks the faltering U.S economy is getting worse – the most negative view of where things are headed since 1992.

Disapproval of President Bush's handling of the economy has also risen, while his overall approval rating has dropped to a new low. In addition, Mr. Bush faces public opposition to several of his priorities including his energy plan and increased military spending.

As the president and Congress get back to work after summer vacation, they face a new set of budget problems, brought about by a lower-than-expected surplus and increasing concern about the state of the economy. Americans overwhelmingly reject one solution to the budget dilemma: tapping into the Social Security surplus to pay for domestic or military programs.

While most Americans don't see the Bush tax cut as the primary culprit behind the shrinking budget surplus, the White House is not viewed as a credible authority on the actual state of the federal budget. And more Americans say it's the Democrats in Congress, not President Bush, who are more likely to make the right decisions about that budget, the economy and government spending.

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The public's perception of the nation's economy has changed dramatically since the start of the year, reaching lows not seen since early 1996. Although 56 percent still think the economy is in good shape, 44 percent think it's in bad condition. Just before Mr. Bush took office in January, perceptions of the economy were overwhelmingly positive, with 84 percent saying it was in good shape.

There is an even bleaker assessment of where the economy is heading. Nearly half, 48 percent think it is getting worse, 42 percent think it is staying the same and only 8 percent think the economy is getting better. Those are the lowest numbers since 1992.

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However, fewer than half the public, 44 percent, think the U.S. is currently in a recession; 50 percent do not think this is the case. Nevertheless, the economy has now become the number one problem Americans want the president and Congress to do something about, cited by 13 percent. Last June, the economy came in third, behind education and the energy/gas problem. During last year's presidential campaign, it was hardly mentioned.


The increasingly pessimistic views of the economy have affected the way Americans perceive the government's current budget situation; most believe the recent lower surplus estimates are the result of economic conditions, and not the administration's tax cut. Fifty-five percent think that the lower budget surplus is due to the economic slowdown, while 28 percent attribute it to Mr. Bush's tax cut. However, most of those who do blame the tax cut don't think it was worth the smaller surplus.

The White House and the Congressional Budget Office continue to disagree about the exact amount of the government surplus, or lack thereof, and the public doubts the Bush administration's credibility on this issue. By 53 percent to 26 percent, Americans believe the Congressional Budget Office figures and not those issued by the White House.

One troubling note is that on this issue the White House is not believed by many of its own party members. Although more Republicans find the WhitHouse figures credible, 38 percent trust the Congressional Budget Office estimates. Only 44 percent of Republicans believe the White House.

Many Americans actually believe the situation is even worse than the Congressional estimates, with an increasing number thinking the government currently takes in less in revenues than it spends. Now, 39 percent believe the government is in a surplus situation, but just about as many - 38 percent - think it is in deficit. Just six months ago, by nearly two to one the public believed the government was running at a surplus.

There is no consensus in principle on whether a smaller surplus is good or bad; 45 percent think it's good, and 40 percent think it's bad. But, most do believe the smaller surplus will lead to cutbacks in government spending, and despite Republicans' arguments in favor of smaller government, most Americans disagree. Fifty-one percent think lower spending on domestic programs would be bad and 39 percent think it would be a good thing.

Most see lower spending as inevitable: 54 percent expect that the smaller budget surplus will lead to a decrease in what the government spends on domestic programs, while 36 percent think that won't happen.


There is consensus when it comes to Social Security: Americans are adamant that surplus Social Security funds be off-limits to the government. More than seven in ten say it is not acceptable for the government to use part of that surplus to pay for things like the military or prescription drug coverage; only 23 percent think this would be acceptable.

Those age 65 and over are especially vehement on this issue. Eighty percent of seniors say it is not acceptable to touch the Social Security surplus, and 8 percent say it is.

President Bush has said he would use the Social Security surplus only in the case of war or a recession, but most Americans don't even consider recession is an adequate reason to raid Social Security. Sixty-six percent say the government should not touch this money, even if the economy is in a recession, while 26 percent say that would be acceptable.


As Republicans, Democrats and the White House all blame each other for the smaller surplus, 17 percent of Americans blame the president himself and slightly larger percentages blame one or the other Congressional party. Twelve percent of the public blames all three.

More blame one of the two parties in Congress than blame the president, but Republicans (Mr. Bush and those in Congress) are more often named than the Congressional Democrats alone.

But the Democrats are seen as more able to find a solution. Forty-four percent think the Democrats are more likely to make the right decisions about balancing the federal budget, and 35 percent think George W. Bush is.


With concerns about a declining economy, a smaller budget surpluand the threat of dipping into the Social Security surplus, Americans' approval of the way George W. Bush is handling his job as president has declined: 50 percent now approve, the lowest rating since he assumed office; 38 percent disapprove.

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News of the Congressional Budget Office's projections that some of the Social Security surplus will be needed to pay for other government spending may be costing Bush the support of a key demographic group - seniors. Americans over age 65 are now split in their assessment of the job Mr. Bush is doing as president - 45 percent approve and 43 percent disapprove. In April, six in ten seniors approved of the job the president was doing.

In 1981, Social Security also cost President Ronald Reagan some support among older Americans. Reagan's job rating among seniors dropped significantly when he proposed cutting some Social Security benefits in order to keep the system solvent.

Concerns about the economy are clearly affecting public assessments of Mr. Bush's performance on that issue: 45 percent now disapprove of the way he is handling the economy and 43 percent approve. In June, half of the public approved of the way Mr. Bush was handling the economy and 38 percent disapproved.

But other summer news may have helped assessments of Mr. Bush in other areas. His approval rating on foreign policy is now 49 percent, nearly unchanged from his rating in June when he returned from his first trip to Europe as president. His rating on the environment has gone up: 43 percent of Americans now approve of the way he is handling the environment and 40 percnt disapprove. Two months ago, the public disapproved of Mr. Bush's handling of the environment, 46 percent to 39 percent.

But the most striking improvement is on the energy situation. In June, threats of power blackouts and astronomical gasoline prices kept the president's approval rating on handling energy down at 33 percent. Now, with those predictions unmet, the public views the president more positively on this issue: 43 percent of Americans approve of the job he is doing, while 42 percent disapprove.

The public's overall opinions of Mr. Bush are similar to what they were in June: 40 percent of Americans now have a favorable opinion of the president, while 29 percent view him unfavorably. But one perception that doesn't do much to enhance the president's image is the view that he is out of touch with what average people think. One half - 52 percent - say Mr. Bush is out of touch with what average people think, while 43 percent believe he is in touch.

Among those groups who feel strongly that Bush is out of touch with average Americans are the poor, blacks, Democrats and Liberals. Even a majority – 56 percent - of independents says the president is out touch with what average people think.


With a slumping economy and a disappearing surplus, Americans are being circumspect about government spending, and they are divided as to whether the country can afford the Bush tax cut and increased spending on the military and preserve Social Security. 46 percent think this is possible and 46 percent think it is not.

The overwhelming support for protecting the Social Security fund may have caused public willingness to sacrifice spending on some other proposals. Given the choice between increasing military spending by $18 billion, as Mr. Bush wants to do, or spending on domestic programs, most Americans choose domestic programs as their top priority. Fifty-four percent think the priority should be to spend on domestic programs, while 35 percent prefer increasing military spending.

Twenty-eight percent would like to see military spending increased, as Mr. Bush has proposed, but 53 percent want spending kept steady and 14 percent want it decreased. During the campaign last year, nearly half of registered voters favored increased defense spending.


While President Bush's proposed missile defense shield gets support in general, once a price is mentioned, there is no longer a consensus. Fifty-eight percent of the public supports it when the cost of the plan is not mentioned, and 32 percent oppose it. But when told that the cost could reach $100 billion, the figure put forth by the Bush administration itself, support drops to 47 percent; 46 percent then oppose it.

In addition to the expense involved, increasingly Americans are skeptical that the shield will work. In this poll, 50 percent think it will work and 34 percent think it won't. That is a 1-point drop since last March, when 66 percent thought it would work and 20 percent thought it wouldn't.


Another area of public concern is President Bush's energy bill, which would provide tax breaks for energy development, incentives for conservation, and drilling in part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It was passed by the House in early August and will now go before the Senate. But just a third of Americans approve of it; 59 percent disapprove.

While most Americans don't yet know much about the bill, knowledge of the bill's content has little impact on the ratio of support and opposition.

The public continues to think President Bush takes a stance in his energy policies that is very different from their own. Fifty-nine percent of Americans think protecting the environment is more important than producing energy; nearly seven in ten, however, think President Bush would choose producing energy over protecting the environment.

The Bush administration's ties to the oil industry are also problematic: 66 percent of the public thinks the oil industry has too much influence on the administration's energy policies.

Americans overwhelmingly believe that conservation, not production, should be the higher priority for government. Two-thirds of Americans say encouraging energy conservation should be the higher priority for the government, and only 19 percent the priority should be increasing the production of petroleum, coal, and natural gas. Among those who say conservation should be the priority, 70 percent disapprove of President Bush's energy bill.


By nearly two to one, Americans say they like Social Security the old-fashioned way - a safety net that is controlled by the government and that must pay benefits to everyone. One-third, on the other hand, think Social Security should be controlled by individuals, who would be responsible for investing their contributions as well as taking the risk of losing or making money.

Support for keeping Social Security a government-controlled safety net is shared by people of all ages, though it is strongest among older Americans. About three-quarters of seniors over age 65 say Social Security should by controlled by the government and pay benefits to everyone.

Still, at least in principle, 52 percent of the public thinks it could be a good idea to partially privatize Social Security by allowing individuals to invest portions of the Social Security taxes on their own; 43 percent think it's a bad idea.

However, most Americans say they would not take advantage of this option. Forty-two percent say they would be very or somewhat likely to invest some of their Social Security taxes in the stock market, and 56 percent say they would not be likely to take the risk. A small majority of those under 45 years old say they would be likely to invest their Social Security taxes in the market; as would two-thirds who favor rivatizing Social Security.

In any event, Americans say that once individuals invest their Social Security taxes, it is the individuals' responsibility should they suffer losses in the stock market.

On this issue, Democrats have a clear advantage: 48 percent think the Democrats in Congress are more likely to make the right decisions about Social Security; 33 percent say President Bush will. That spread is twice as large as the 7-point advantage Al Gore held on the issue during the presidential campaign last fall.


This fall, the Congress will be debating and voting on a number of bills that represent key elements of Mr. Bush's agenda as well as making key decisions about the budget. The public is slightly more skeptical that the president and Democrats in Congress will work together than they were earlier this summer, and they give the Democrats an edge in several areas.

Although majorities believe that Mr. Bush will compromise with the Democrats and that the Democrats will work with the administration, these numbers are down from June.

Fifty-eight percent of Americans now believe President Bush will work with the Democrats in Congress in order to get things done, down from 63 percent two months ago; 59 percent say the Democrats will work with the president, also down from 67 percent in June.

The public, however, strongly believes that Mr. Bush and the Democrats SHOULD compromise. Nearly three-quarters of Americans say Mr. Bush and the Democrats should compromise in order to get things done, while only 17 percent believe they should each stick to their positions.

When it comes to major issues as the federal budget, Social Security and the economy, the public sides with the Democrats in Congress, and not with the president:

  • 44 percent say Democrats are more likely to make the right decisions about balancing the federal budget, whereas 35 percent say Mr. Bush is more likely. This is a change from previous polls, where Republicans usually have an advantage.
  • On Social Security, traditionally a Democratic issue, 48 percent to 33 percent feel the Democrats are likely to do a better job than the president.
  • When it comes to the economy, the top concern of Americans, 43 percent say the Democrats are more likely to keep the economy strong, while 37 percent say Mr. Bush will do a better job.
  • And despite the passage of Mr. Bush's tax cut and distribution of tax rebates, Americans say the Democrats, by a margin of 43 percent to 38 percent, are more likely to make the right decisions when it comes to how the government should spend taxpayer's money.

    More people have a favorable view of the Democratic Party than have a favorable view of the Republicans, but the gap has narrowed slightly since June. Fifty-three percent have a favorable view of the Democrats, while 46 percent view the Republicans favorably. In June, 56 percent viewed the Democrats favorably and 46 ercent had a favorable view of the Republicans.

    Opinions of Congress as a whole remain mixed: 43 percent approve of the way Congress is handling its job, about the same percentage as a month ago, while 41 percent disapprove.


    Vice President Dick Cheney continues to get good marks from the public: 53 percent of the public approves of the job he is doing as vice president and only 25 percent disapprove. Cheney's approval rating is down only slightly since May when 56 percent approved of his job performance and 17 percent disapproved.


    Al Gore's recent re-emergence into public life, co-sponsoring a political workshop at Vanderbilt University, has not had much positive impact on the American people. In fact, 20 percent fewer express any opinion about the former Democratic nominee than did so in January.

    Currently, 31 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the former vice president, down from 44 percent in January; 33 percent view him unfavorably, also down from the start of this year.

    This poll was conducted among a nationwide sample of 850 adults, interviewed by telephone August 28-31, 2001. The error due to sampling could be plus or minus three percentage points on results based on the entire sample. Sampling error for subgroups may be higher.

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

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