Public's View of Economy Takes Fast Turn Downward

By Jennifer Agiesta and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 18, 2008

The public's ratings of the national economy continue to sour, with assessments deteriorating faster than at any point in Washington Post-ABC News polling. Views on the Iraq war have also turned more negative, with six in 10 now rejecting the notion that the United States needs to win there to effectively battle terrorism.

The economy and the Iraq war are the top two issues on voters' minds, according to the new Post-ABC poll, and worsening opinions of both may dampen GOP hopes for the November elections.

Nine in 10 Americans now give the economy a negative rating, with a majority saying it is in "poor" shape, the most to say so in more than 15 years. And the sense that things are bad has spread swiftly. The percentage who hold a negative view of the economy is up 33 points over the past year, and the percentage who rate the economy "poor" has increased 13 points in the past two months. That is the quickest 60-day decline since The Post and ABC started asking the question, in 1985.

Views of the Iraq war have dipped as well. Now, more than six in 10 say that the conflict is not integral to the success of U.S. anti-terrorism efforts. That is the most people to reject what is one of the Bush administration's central contentions and a core part of presumed GOP presidential nominee John McCain's stand on the issue.

And for the first time since President Bush ordered additional troops to Iraq early last year, the number of Americans saying the United States is not making significant progress toward restoring civil order there has risen. Negative views of the war had eased steadily from late 2006 through early March of this year, but 57 percent in the new poll said efforts in Iraq have stalled, up six points.

Moreover, while Bush remains committed to keeping more than 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq through the rest of his presidency, 56 percent of Americans say the United States should withdraw its military forces to avoid further casualties. This has been the majority view since January 2007.

On several measures, the poll finds Republicans inching away from support for the war. Among them, a sense that progress in Iraq has stalled has increased 13 points from early March, and the percentages who prefer withdrawing troops over risking more casualties (30 percent) and who think that the battle against terrorism can be a success without victory in Iraq (39 percent) are each at new highs.

The percentages of Democrats and independents advocating withdrawal and seeing Iraq as distinct from the U.S. terrorism fight are also at or near high marks. And three-quarters of Democrats and nearly six in 10 independents do not see significant progress in Iraq.

The survey was conducted April 10 through 13, after congressional testimony about the war by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker.

Partisan views color public opinion about the nation's economy, as well as those about Iraq.

Two-thirds of Democrats call the economy downright "poor," as do a majority of independents. But while a wide majority of Republicans rate the economy negatively, only about three in 10 describe conditions as that dire, and most have a positive take on the future. Most Democrats and independents, however, hold pessimistic views about the next 12 months.

Economic ratings are flagging across partisan lines, and overall optimism is at a new low among all Americans: Nearly six in 10 said they feel pessimistic about the economy for the coming year, a seven-point increase since early February. And those who think the situation is already in poor shape do not have high hopes for recovery anytime soon; nearly three-quarters of them have a negative view about the next 12 months.

Focusing on their own finances, Americans are generally upbeat, but here, too, opinions have declined somewhat over the past few months. Two-thirds are optimistic about their family's financial situation for the coming year, down seven points since December.

One force behind declining assessments of the economy is the soaring cost of gasoline. With retail prices averaging $3.39 per gallon (a record high, according to the Energy Department), two-thirds of those polled said recent price increases have been a hardship, including about four in 10 who called the cost of filling their tanks a "serious" burden. Among those with annual family incomes under $50,000, 52 percent said gas prices cause serious hardship, double the number of those from higher-income families to say so.

The government's plan to alleviate some of the economic stress -- through economic stimulus rebates and new tax breaks for businesses -- is viewed even more skeptically than it was in early February. Nearly eight in 10 now think the package will not be enough to avert or soften a recession. Republicans in particular have soured on the idea: 68 percent said it will fail to abate the slowdown, an increase of 21 points since February.

This poll was conducted among a random national sample of 1,197 adults. The results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

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