POLL: Public Sees Recession; Stimulus Plan Draws Skepticism

Six in 10 Americans think the economy's already in a recession — and two-thirds doubt that a government stimulus package will soften the blow.

Those, and other broadly negative views, underscore current public anxiety about the nation's economy. Eighty-one percent in an ABC News/Washington Post poll say it's in bad shape, the most since 1993. And half see a "long-term decline," rather than a normal correction, in a basically solid economic system.

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Other views and trends hold out some hope. While 51 percent are pessimistic about the economy over the next 12 months, that's no worse now than in December (albeit far gloomier than a year earlier). And more, 67 percent, remain optimistic about their own family's financial situation, though this, too, is down from just over a year ago.

RECESSION -- Still, the bottom line is not good. Whether the economy technically is in a recession, is a question for economists. But in this poll, 59 percent think it is, a level that could potentially influence behavior, such as leading consumers to curtail spending.

Similarly, the ongoing ABC News Consumer Comfort Index is at its lowest in four years, with ratings of the buying climate their worst in 14 years. Expectations for economic improvement last month hit a 16-year low. And 39 percent call the economy the single most important issue in the election, up sharply from 11 percent in September.

The Bush administration and Congress have responded with plans for an economic stimulus package that would provide payments for most families, and tax breaks for business reinvestment; details are in negotiation. But reflecting the public's sour views, 67 percent in this poll don't think it will be enough to avoid or soften a recession.

Indeed, spending plans for a stimulus payment raise questions about what it would accomplish. Asked what they'd do with a tax rebate check, just 22 percent of Americans say they'd spend it, the purpose of the stimulus. Instead, 30 percent say they'd save it, and 31 percent say they'd use it to pay bills, with the rest divided among other choices.

POLITICS -- While the political impact of the country's economic jitters remains to be seen, current views give an edge to the Democrats. The public, by 52 percent to 33 percent, trusts them over the Republicans to do a better job handling the economy.

The Democrats also lead, by a similar 52 percent to 31 percent, in trust to handle the federal budget deficit; and by a narrower 48 percent to 40 percent, in trust to handle taxes. Beyond directly economic issues, the Democrats' largest lead, 27 points, is on health care, and they have a 14-point edge on trust to handle the war in Iraq, and seven points on terrorism. The two parties are closest on immigration issues, with preference dividing 40 percent to 37 percent. All these are similar to their recent levels.

Certainly, the economy has brought little relief to George W. Bush, already suffering from long-term low approval by dint of public discontent, with the war in Iraq (65 percent continue to say it was not worth fighting). Thirty-three percent approve of Bush's job performance overall, a scant point above his career low last month. He's as low, specifically, on Iraq and the economy, alike: Just 33 percent and 30 percent approve, respectively.

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