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.
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. "You can get the numbers to do whatever you want them to do."
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."