Economy Provides No Boost for Bush
By October 1994, economic growth had climbed to a healthy 4 percent, and unemployment had slid from 7.5 percent in 1992 to 6.1 percent. Yet President Bill Clinton's economic job approval ratings were stuck at 43 percent, with 52 percent disapproving. The GOP swept into power on Capitol Hill the next month. It was not until June 1996, more than five years into the longest peacetime economic expansion in history, that Clinton's approval ratings on the economy turned solidly positive.
"Americans are a show-me people," said Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion expert at the American Enterprise Institute. "They need to be shown that things have actually been changed, and I think in an economic recovery, this means seeing the guy down the street getting his job back rather than good jobs numbers."
For President Bush, the disconnect has been far more pronounced. Over the course of this year, according to Gallup polling, disapproval of Bush's handling of the economy has risen in lock step with the economy's performance, from 43 percent in early January to 58 percent. "It may be hard to evince positive responses to anything we ask them," conceded Frank Newport, Gallup's polling director.
For Republicans, frustration is beginning to show. Last week, when the Labor Department announced that an additional 248,000 jobs had been created in May, House Ways and Means Committee Republicans e-mailed reporters, blaring, "It's a Booming Economy, Stupid."
But John R. Zaller, a political scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles, suggested that voters may not be stupid. They just may have considerably sharper antennae than economists.
In the fall of 2000, when most economic indicators continued to surge, anxiety among voters began to take a toll on Democrat Al Gore's White House bid, Zaller said. That anxiety proved to be prescient: By the spring of 2001, the economy had slipped into recession.
This go-round, jobs are coming back, but Americans may sense that those jobs are not of the same quality as the work that was lost, Newport said. Any good economic news is being tempered by high gasoline prices, and a generally sour mood has made voters skeptical.
"My dad told me when I was growing up that figures lie and liars figure," Flickinger scoffed.
For Bush, that sensitivity is compounded by the war in Iraq, Zaller said. Most economists and political scientists look to the economy to determine an election's outcome, but foreign policy events can knock or add as much 3 percentage points to an incumbent's vote. President Jimmy Carter may have been sunk in 1980 by the disastrous, failed rescue attempt of U.S. hostages in Iran.
For Bush, that sensitivity to foreign affairs is not all bad. Maria Sandoval, an elderly Democrat in Colorado Springs, has had a rough time of it in the past few years, living solely on Social Security and relying on the county clinic for her health care. On the economy, Bush "hasn't done very good," she allowed. He could have offered more help, she said, and his prescription drug law does not promise her much, either.
But Bush has her vote, she said firmly. "I guess he hasn't put too much into [the economy], but he's busy with a lot of other things. He's on top of everything. That's what I like about him."
During the Clinton years, Jeremy Tuck said he had been selling mobile homes in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and, at $45,000 a year, making good money. Last year, he was assembling mobile homes, earning $15,000 and living hand-to-mouth. But Bush has his vote this November. Had Gore been elected in 2000, Tuck said, "we would've been taken over by Saddam Hussein or [Osama] bin Laden."
"You make more money in plain terms when Democrats are in office," Tuck said with a shrug, "but Republicans are stronger on the military, and that's why I'm voting for President Bush."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
President Bush speaks to workers about the economy and jobs in Bay Shore, N.Y. on March 11.
(Charles Dharapak - AP)