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Support strong yet tax cut doubts { May 14 2003 }

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May 14, 2003
Bush's Support Strong Despite Tax Cut Doubts

Americans have persistent reservations about the tax cuts that are the centerpiece of President Bush's postwar agenda, but those concerns have not hurt Mr. Bush, who continues to ride a huge wave of support, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

The number of Americans who said they had confidence in Mr. Bush's ability to manage the economy dropped seven points, to 47 percent, in the month the president has been pushing his tax cut plan in speeches in Washington and across the nation. The poll also found that many Americans say that instead of cutting taxes, the nation should use the money to cut the deficit or finance a national health care system.

There is no evidence, however, that those doubts have damaged Mr. Bush's overall standing. The poll found that 67 percent approved of his job performance, while 70 percent said he had strong qualities of leadership, the trait that the White House has long contended would trump any concerns Americans might have about Mr. Bush's policies.

Beyond that, Americans now hold a notably more favorable view of the Republican Party than of the Democratic Party, and 53 percent said Republicans had a clear vision of where to lead the country, compared with just 40 percent who said that of Democrats. That finding is reminiscent of what the Times/CBS News poll found last fall, just before Republicans took control of Congress.

By any measure, the Times/CBS News poll, which is the second since the fall of Baghdad and was taken at a time when activity on the presidential campaign trail has been increasing, offered a glimpse of the daunting task the Democrats face at least today, 18 months before Election Day, in trying to win back the White House and Congress.

For all the emphasis that Democrats have placed on questioning Mr. Bush's economic record, Americans were evenly divided over which party was more likely to ensure a strong economy. And in a finding that suggests that Democratic attacks against Mr. Bush have yet to take hold, 67 percent of Americans said they thought that Mr. Bush cared a lot or some "about the needs and problems of people like yourself," though 54 percent said that Mr. Bush's policies favored the rich.

Still, there were a few encouraging signs in the poll for the nine Democratic presidential candidates.

Americans overwhelmingly said the nation's health care system needed fundamental change or a complete overhaul, and they said the Democratic Party was better equipped to do that.

That finding seems not to have been lost on the Democratic presidential candidates. Yesterday, Howard Dean became the latest to offer a plan for expanding health care coverage, using a speech to counter an ambitious proposal to provide universal health care put forward by Representative Richard A. Gephardt three weeks ago. A third candidate, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, will offer his health care plan in Iowa tomorrow.

Respondents also said that the Democrats would do a better job of creating jobs and improving education. In addition, the number of Americans who named the economy as the chief problem facing the country continued to climb, to 29 percent in this poll, up from 23 percent last month, suggesting the potential potency of the issue that both the White House and Democrats believe could prove pivotal in next year's presidential election.

The poll was conducted by telephone from Friday through Monday. It involved 910 adults and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

Whatever enthusiasm Americans have for their president has, so far at least, not extended to what Mr. Bush has identified as his chief domestic goal now that the war is nearly over: slashing taxes. Almost uniformly, the Democratic presidential candidates have called for rejecting either all or most of Mr. Bush's tax cut, describing it as economically damaging and tilted unfairly to the rich, and the findings suggested that this argument could eventually have some resonance.

A plurality of those polled, 41 percent, said they believed that Mr. Bush's tax cut could help the economy. But 48 percent rejected one of Mr. Bush's central arguments for tax cuts, saying the cuts were not very or not at all likely to create jobs. In addition, 58 percent said they did not expect to find any more money in their paychecks as a result of Mr. Bush's tax cuts. And 63 percent of respondents said the tax cuts in 2001 had not helped the economy.

On matters of economic policy, Americans appear to have a different set of priorities from their president's. For example, 81 percent of respondents said that the country should make sure Americans had access to health care, rather than cut taxes. And 58 percent said the priority should be reducing the deficit.

"We need to lower the deficit," said Ed Petrone, 73, an independent voter from Boca Raton, Fla., in a follow-up interview. "Reducing taxes is only a short-term bump in the economy. Lowering the deficit will help us down the road. Reduce the deficit and we can put more money in the economy."

Carroll Smith, 76, an independent voter from Gallipolis, Ohio, said, "If they would balance the budget, the country would be in better shape."

Beyond the economy, with nine months to go before the caucuses in Iowa, most people do not know who is running to unseat Mr. Bush. Nearly two-thirds of voters, regardless of which party they were from, were unable to name a single one of the nine Democrats seeking the party's nomination.

Still, the poll suggested that some of the early contours of the coming election were becoming clear.

Continuing a historical trend that has played to the advantage of the Republican Party, the Times/CBS News poll found that Americans overwhelmingly saw Republicans as better able to make the right decisions on terrorism and to keep the military strong.

Although some Democratic presidential candidates, notably Senators John Edwards of North Carolina and Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, have sought to challenge Mr. Bush's foreign policy credentials by saying that Mr. Bush had not done enough to protect Americans from another terrorist attack, those warnings did not seem to have been embraced by voters.

An overwhelming majority of respondents said Mr. Bush had made progress in developing a plan to protect the United States from terrorist attacks. The number of Americans who named terrorism as the most important problem facing the nation has declined steadily since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The poll, however, was completed before the latest terrorist attacks, in Saudi Arabia.

Fifty-eight percent of respondents said Republicans would do a better job of protecting the United States against terrorist attacks; just 18 percent said the same thing of Democrats. And 66 percent said Republicans were more likely to make sure the nation's military forces were strong, compared with 19 percent who expressed such confidence in Democrats.

In one sign of the challenge Democrats face if they criticize Mr. Bush's foreign policy credentials, 6 in 10 respondents rejected complaints by Democrats who charged that it was inappropriate for Mr. Bush to have announced the end of fighting in Iraq by landing a plane on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific.

Notwithstanding Mr. Bush's strong standing in the aftermath of the war in Iraq, the poll found continued evidence that the nation remains politically polarized after the disputed election of 2000. A majority of Democrats and half of all independents said they did not consider that Mr. Bush had legitimately won the White House.

"Bush is a court-appointed president," said Jo Carney, 59, an independent voter from East Hampton, N.Y. "He was not elected. Everything was completely mishandled in Florida, and the way the court intervened was really pulling strings."

The poll suggested that Republicans have continued to do a better job in laying out an agenda that is clear to Americans. Democrats have long thought that that would change as attention moved away from Capitol Hill, where Democrats are in the minority and thus do not have a platform, and to the presidential campaign, thus improving the party's standing with the public.

The speech by Dr. Dean in New York, setting off a debate with Mr. Gephardt on who has the more realistic and efficient plan for providing health care coverage, would seem to be an example of that. For now, though, the poll found that 53 percent of respondents had a favorable view of the Republican Party, compared with 46 percent with a favorable view of Democrats.

"The Republicans have a clear view of what they want and are effective in promoting it," said Wendy Satterford, 50, a Democrat from San Diego. "The Democrats don't have a clear vision. They seem afraid of the electorate and the apparent rising tide of conservatism. They don't seem to be able to speak out even for the middle-of-the-road things."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company | Home | Privacy Policy | Search | Corrections | Help | Back to Top

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