Joined: Sat May 29, 2004 11:46 pm
Bush's second term: Optimism has fallen, divisions increased
Wednesday, January 19 @ 10:31:56 EST
Bush begins his second term facing a nation worried about health care and the war in Iraq
By Susan Page, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — President Bush takes the oath of office for a second time on Thursday with ambitious plans to foster democracy in Iraq and to overhaul Social Security, rewrite the tax code and limit medical-malpractice lawsuits at home.
But he will be leading a nation that is less optimistic about the future than it was when he was inaugurated for his first term. Then, 56% of those surveyed by USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup were generally satisfied with the way things were going in the USA; now 46% are. He'll face a public that is deeply divided over his leadership.
That divide has solidified during the past four years, costing him the honeymoon that presidents — even second-term presidents — typically enjoy at inauguration. He takes office with a job-approval rating of 51%, the consistently lowest of any re-elected president in modern times. Partisan divisions eased when Presidents Clinton, Reagan and Eisenhower were sworn in a second time.
They haven't for Bush.
What's more, he'll be pursuing an agenda that differs from the challenges most Americans identify as top priorities. Their most urgent concerns: education and health care costs.
The findings of a series of USA TODAY polls in December and January raise questions about the president's claim of a mandate for his second-term agenda. His plan to add individual investment accounts to Social Security is supported by 48% and opposed by 48%, for instance. By 52%-47%, Americans call his decision to invade Iraq a mistake.
“These guys have a hell of a plateful,” says Ronald Zibelli, 70, a retired lawyer in Boca Raton, Fla., who voted for Bush and was among those polled. “The economy is coming back, (but) Iraq is kind of a mess. This whole business with Social Security is a big can of worms. Medicare is overextended.”
Zibelli's top priority: reducing the federal budget deficit.
Bush gets credit on some fronts for progress made during his first term. His approval ratings for dealing with terrorism have been consistently strong since the Sept. 11 attacks eight months into his term. Americans are more satisfied than they were four years ago with the amount they pay in taxes, efforts to control crime and race relations.
But they are more uneasy about some fundamentals: The state of the economy and the role the United States plays in world affairs, the influence of big corporations and organized religion, and the opportunity a person has in this country to get ahead by working hard.
And they are less confident than they were in 2001 that Bush's administration will be able to deal with the problems that are making them anxious about what's ahead.
Four years ago, 50% of Americans predicted he would succeed in ensuring the long-term solvency of Social Security; now 40% do. The percentages confident that he will be able to improve education, increase respect for the United States abroad and heal political divisions at home have dropped.
Still, Bush no longer has to deal with the predicament that dogged him four years ago, when he lost the popular vote to Al Gore and won the Electoral College after a disputed count in Florida. Then, just 45% said Bush won the election fair and square. Now, 77% do.
“I mean, he's our president, and I will support him,” says Cindy Garza, 41, an office assistant in Lubbock, Texas, who voted for Sen. John Kerry in November. But she worries about Iraq — “I want us to get the job done and get out” — as well as the availability of good jobs and the price of a gallon of gas.
The nation's political landscape has been transformed since Bush moved into the White House.
In 2001, the economy had just emerged from a period of record growth, the USA was at peace and “homeland security” was not a common phrase. Education was a top issue: As many as 40%of Americans considered it “extremely important” for the government to deal with in the next year.
Now there are at least a half-dozen issues viewed with such urgency — not only education but also health care costs, the economy and Social Security. The issues seen as most urgent of all are the war in Iraq and the battle against terrorism. Because those events were repercussions of the Sept. 11 attacks, they were nowhere on the list of top concerns four years ago.
On domestic issues, Americans are more concerned about education and health care costs than they are about Social Security. They worry more about jobs, the deficit and poverty than they do about taxes, another focus for Bush. Protecting the environment ranks above curtailing lawsuits against doctors, the first major legislative proposal the president plans to pursue this year.
Among 18 issues, same-sex marriage — the subject of heated debate in the election — comes in last when Americans are asked to rate their concerns.
“Health care is the biggest problem; it's off the chart,” says Rena Dixon, 60, a nurse's assistant from Whitman, Ga. She didn't vote in November but would have supported Kerry if she had. Her husband's medical bills run $500 to $600 a month.
The mood of the nation and attitudes toward Bush were explored in three USA TODAY polls: a survey of 1,007 adults taken Friday through Sunday, another poll of 1,008 taken Jan. 7-9, and a third of 1,002 taken Dec. 17-19. A separate Gallup Poll of 1,005 adults was taken Jan. 3-5.
The surveys have marginsof error from +/-3 to +/-5 percentage points.
If the public's assessment of issues has changed over four years, so have their views of the president. In 2001, even after the disputed election, Americans by 58%-36% called Bush “a uniter” rather than “a divider.” Now that question splits the country 49%-49%. Americans are more confident that the president can handle an international crisis than they were four years ago, but they are less confident that he will use military force wisely or be able to prevent major scandals in his administration.
Attitudes toward Bush continue to divide along partisan lines — more so than for any previous president. Nine of 10 Republicans approve of the job Bush is doing. Eight of 10 Democrats disapprove.
“I'm really excited he's in office for the next four years,” says Leah Shay, 27, of Moline, Ill., who runs a home-based business and voted for Bush. She is most concerned about family breakdown and “runaway” judges. Bush “has a big heart and some good ambitions about getting us back to where we were and where we should be,” she says.
Eric Rosen, 59, a retired attorney from Framingham, Mass., voted for Kerry. “I'm giving him a chance to do the right thing in Iraq and to be more cognizant of the pitfalls of the deficit,” Rosen says of Bush. But he adds: “I think it's more like wishful thinking that he may learn from the mistakes he's made.”
To the surprise of most Americans, there hasn't been a terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11. That's eased concerns about the terrorist threat and allowed other issues to rise in importance. Six of 10 now say the country isn't likely to face a terrorist attack in the near future, the most optimistic reading since Sept. 11.
But Americans are increasingly pessimistic about the situation in Iraq even with the approach of elections scheduled for Jan. 30. A 59% majority say things are going badly for the United States in Baghdad; half of those say things are going “very badly.” Most say it's unlikely that democracy or security will be achieved there this year.
On the economy, Americans are more optimistic than they were four years ago that things are getting better, but that's largely because views of the current economy are worse. In 2001, two-thirds rated the economy as excellent or good; now four in 10 do. Then, about one-third said it was getting better. Now, nearly half say that.
Generally, Americans look to 2005 with some trepidation. By 54%-44%, they predict a year of economic difficulty, not prosperity. By 69%-29%, they see “a troubled year with much international discord,” not a peaceful year.
Seven in 10 say the country is more divided on major issues than in the past. Thursday's ceremonies aren't likely to remedy that. By more than 2-to-1, those surveyed describe the inauguration as a political celebration for Bush's supporters, not one for all Americans.
Even so, by 53%-42% Americans predict the country will be better off four years from now.
“As an American, I have to be optimistic,” says Don Gordon, 65, a retired railroad conductor from Whitefish, Mont., who voted for Bush. He worries about the loss of jobs, illegal immigration across the Mexican border and “that nasty war” in Iraq. “I hope he gets himself in gear and begins dealing with these issues,” Gordon says. “People are hurting right now.”
COMMENT: I can certainly understand the concern about health care to the average American. My husband spent 2 hours in the ER Dec. 30...had a CT scan to detect a kidney stone, several pain meds injections, lab charges, and the use of the ER room ..came to a charge of over $4,000, and that doesn't include other charges that will be coming in from radiology.
Thankfully, his excellent insurance coverage has paid everything so far, including his prescribed medications...but can you imagine not having insurance coverage for an emergency like this?
"Behind every great fortune lies a great crime."
Honore de Balzac
"Democrats work to help people who need help.
That other party, they work for people who don't need help.
That's all there is to it."
~Harry S. Truman