Poll: Bush Ratings Tepid, Expectations Mixed

Comparisons to Clinton at this stage are available on some issues. Forty-six percent approve of Bush's work on the economy; it was 61 percent for Clinton just before his second inauguration. On the other hand, Bush's 51 percent approval for handling foreign affairs is close to Clinton's 54 percent in mid-January 1997.

Expectations for "substantial progress" from Bush are about the same as they were for Clinton on some issues -- the economy, Social Security and health care. But they're six points lower for Bush on education, 16 points lower on the deficit and 28 points lower on the environment.

On a more personal level, half of Americans said Clinton understood the problems of average Americans; seven points fewer say the same of Bush. Indeed there are just three prominent political groups in which majorities say Bush understands their problems: Republicans, conservatives and evangelical white Protestants. Bush does better, though, as a leader who "shares your values"; 54 percent of all Americans say this is so.

PARTISANSHIP, MODERATION and WOMEN -- Partisanship is a heavy factor in presidential approval. At the most basic, Bush gets a 91 percent job approval rating from Republicans, but just 22 percent from Democrats.

But that isn't necessarily new: There was a similar partisan gap for Clinton in January 1997. The difference is in their appeal to the center: In 1997, 61 percent of independents and 65 percent of moderates approved of Clinton's performance; today, Bush gets just 49 and 46 percent support in these same groups.

There's a difference between the sexes, too. Bush and Clinton's approval ratings at this point in their careers are nearly identical among men. But Bush's is 15 points weaker among women -- who, among other factors, are more critical of his work on Iraq.

Comparisons With Nixon

There also are grounds for comparison with Richard Nixon, since his and Bush's pre-inauguration job approval ratings are so similar. The most striking difference is in volatility: Nixon's rating gyrated dramatically, 59 percent a month after the 1972 election, 51 percent before his second inauguration, up to 67 percent when the Vietnam peace accords were signed days later, then spiraling rapidly down in the Watergate scandal. Bush's by contrast has been steady, between 47 and 54 percent, over the last 11 months.

SOCIAL SECURITY -- As noted, Bush has underscored three domestic issues in recent weeks -- Social Security, immigration and tort reform. He has good possibilities on all three, but again, challenges as well.

On Social Security, Americans divide about evenly on the question of cutting the rate of growth in benefits for future retirees: Forty-eight percent opposed, 47 percent in favor. That's less opposition than some have suggested, given the treasured program's famed third-rail danger.

One likely factor is how the issue is presented. Some other surveys have posited a cut in benefits; this one instead posed the question as a reduction in the rate of growth, which is more specifically what's been proposed. This survey also specified the apparent size of the reduction, up to one and a half percent a year.

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