Economy Provides No Boost for Bush
Foreign Policy Concerns Hurt Approval Ratings
By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 10, 2004; Page A01
The nation's economy is growing smartly, wages have begun to rise, and employers have added more than 1.4 million jobs to their payrolls in the past nine months. Yet voters continue to give President Bush poor ratings on his handling of the economy.
It may sound baffling, but interviews with voters, pollsters and economists suggest Bush's stubborn difficulties on domestic policy boil down to an obvious problem abroad.
"It all goes back to Iraq," said Steven Valerga, 50, a Republican in Martinez, Calif., who voted for Bush in 2000 but plans to vote for Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) in November. "It's a drain on the economy, when there's so much needed elsewhere. My gosh, we didn't need to be there."
War has usually been good for the economy in the short run, and this one appears no different. In the first three months of this year, defense work accounted for nearly 16 percent of the nation's economic growth, according to the Commerce Department.
But amid the car bombings, assassinations and continuing casualties, voters are generally pessimistic about the direction the nation is taking. Bush's negative ratings are rising not just on the economy but also on energy policy, foreign affairs and his handling of the prescription drug issue. Voters fixated on Iraq so far are not willing to see the improving economy through a positive prism, according to pollsters and Bush campaign aides.
"There's a general anxiety that is at heart about security," said Bush campaign spokesman Terry Holt, "and that's why security is so central to the campaign. Security underlies our feelings about prosperity."
Bush's ratings have not just been impervious to good economic news; they have fallen with it. In April 2003, 52 percent of voters approved of his handling of the economy, although at that time payrolls had not pulled out of a skid that began in March 2001.
By late May, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, the president's approval rating on the economy had slipped to 44 percent, with 54 percent disapproving. By then, virtually every economic indicator was heading skyward.
Conversations about the economy gravitate to foreign policy, and voters find the corrosive influence of war in the most unlikely places.
To Valerga, the fighting has driven up the cost of the plywood he needed to redo his roof. Clint Doherty, a small-business man in Clarkston, Wash., sees the war in stainless-steel bolts, which have risen in price by more than 120 percent in a month and a half. To Jeremy Tuck, 31, a Republican in Hamilton, Ala., standing by Bush, it has sucked taxpayer dollars away from where it is needed: "We're spending $150 billion on the war. That's what's hurting us."
For numerous voters, it is the nagging sense that a president consumed with foreign affairs no longer cares about the plight of citizens at home. Jodie Flickinger, 52, a lifelong Republican in Columbia, S.C., recalled being taken aback by economic conditions during a Memorial Day weekend trip to her native Youngstown, Ohio.
"I think he gets more joy, he gets a bigger rush, out of doing world war," she said of Bush. "The United States economy just bores him or confuses him, I guess."
Patricia Smith, 70, a Republican in Newport News, sensed the same problem: "He's gotten so overwhelmed with these other things that he's forgotten what he promised he would do for us."
Bush is not the first president to suffer from a disconnect between objective economic indicators and voter perceptions on the economy. The economy began growing steadily in March 1991, when President George H.W. Bush registered a 49 percent approval rating on his handling of the economy. But by July of 1992, those approval ratings had slid to an abysmal 25 percent, presaging his electoral defeat three months later.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company