WASHINGTON — President Bush's approval rating among the public has continued to drop, and by a more than 3-1 margin Americans think he is not doing as much as he could to revive the economy, according to a new poll.
The survey by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press also found that Bush's effort to focus blame for the economy on congressional Democrats has failed to take root. And as the nation's economic problems take their toll on Bush and the Republican Party in general, Democrats have substantially improved their image as economic managers in the public's view.
Those surveyed now rate Democrats as better able than Republicans to manage the nation's most serious problems and rate the two parties essentially equal on the task of making America economically competitive, a point that had worked in the GOP's favor in recent years.
Given a list of eight major tasks ranging from crime to job growth to foreign affairs, the only item on which those polled believed Republicans would do a better job was managing relations with Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
But with 76% of those surveyed rating economic problems at the top of the nation's list of ills, that GOP edge on foreign policy may not help much. Additionally, 76% of the public thinks that Bush could be doing more to improve economic conditions, whereas only 21% think that he is doing as much as he can.
In November, the poll found 55% of people surveyed approving of Bush's job performance. Now, his approval rating has dropped to 46%.
Bush still receives overall positive ratings from small majorities of college graduates, Southerners and people under 30. But his drop has been particularly steep among those identifying themselves as political independents--a key swing group in presidential elections. Last November, 54% of the independents surveyed approved of Bush's job performance, but only 39% approved in the latest survey.
The poll also showed that those surveyed were more likely to blame Republicans for the current economic ills than Democrats. Asked who is "the most responsible for the current economic situation," 20% of those surveyed said Bush and 6% said former President Ronald Reagan. Fourteen percent blamed Congress in general--saying they had neither party in mind--and only 3% blamed congressional Democrats in particular.
Although these factors indicate that Democrats have the potential to unseat Bush in this year's election, the survey also underscored a key Democratic weakness--name recognition.
Of the Democratic presidential candidates, only former California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. had a clear reputation with a large majority of the public, but nearly half of those who knew of him rated him unfavorably.
Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton is viewed by many political observers as the early front-runner in the Democratic race, but nearly half of those polled said they knew too little about him to have an impression of him. Among those willing to pass judgment, Clinton had the highest favorable rating among the Democrats--71%.
The only candidate who has close to universal name recognition in either party, other than Bush, is Louisiana's David Duke. His image is overwhelmingly unfavorable, 86% to 14%.
The Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press is a research foundation funded by the Times Mirror Co., owner of the Los Angeles Times and other newspaper, broadcasting and publishing enterprises. The poll was based on 1,220 telephone interviews conducted nationally Jan. 3-7. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 2%.
The decline in Bush's approval ratings has been matched by a steady increase in the percentage of people feeling "dissatisfied with the way things are going in the U.S. at the present time." In October, 1988, just before Bush's election, only 40% said they were dissatisfied, contrasted with 56% who characterized themselves as satisfied. But since then, the picture has dramatically reversed. In the latest poll, those dissatisfied outnumbered the satisfied, 68% to 28%.
And as those numbers have changed, so too have the images of the two parties. In recent elections, Republicans have prospered in large part because of a belief among voters that they were better able to handle key issues such as defense, management of the economy and fighting crime. In presidential elections, those advantages more than offset the Democrats' edge as the party viewed as better able to handle such social issues as health care, education and helping the homeless.
In the new survey, the percentage favoring Republicans has remained relatively stable, but the percentage with a favorable view of Democrats has shot upward. As a result, the GOP edge has disappeared on many issues.
Asked which party could best make America competitive in the world economy, for example, those surveyed rated the two parties in a virtual tie: 41% for the Republicans; 38% for the Democrats. By contrast, when the same question was asked in May, 1990, Republicans had a 41%-25% advantage.
Who Gets the Blame
A new poll by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press found that people were more inclined to blame President Bush for the nation's current economic problems than members of Congress.
Who do you think is the most responsible for the current situation? Bush: 20% Congress*: 14% Congressional Democrats: 3% Congressional Republicans: 1% Reagan: 6% Wall St./Business: 2% All Other: 30% Don't Know: 24% * Respondents did not specify party
Margin for error: plus or minus 2%