New Day Dawning: Strong Approval for President-Elect

Bush Retrospective Shows Long Steep Decline

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The latest results from Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind poll show that outgoing President George W. Bush maintains his historically low marks from New Jersey voters while President-elect Barack Obama comes to office with high marks. 

Reflecting the change in presidential administration and voters’ expectations, 34% of New Jerseyans now say the country’s on the right track, up from a low measurement of 13% taken before the November presidential election.  Likewise, 52% say the country is on the wrong track, declining from a high of 78% before the November election. That change is reflected strongly among Democrats and independents rather than Republicans.

President-elect Barack Obama approaches his inauguration with broad approval: 72% of all voters approve of the way he is handling his transition to president, while just 10% disapprove. “It is traditional that incoming presidents enjoy the goodwill of voters,” said Peter Woolley, a political scientist and director of the poll. “With all that is pressing on the public agenda, this president will need it.”  In addition to four of five (82%) Democrats who approve of Obama’s transition efforts, nearly three of five Republicans (58%) also approve.

Most voters (51%) think the economy will be “about the same” six months from now.  And those who think things will get worse (17%) in six months are outnumbered by the 29% who say things will be better.  But the president-elect will have to achieve more than the outgoing president has in dealing with economic problems. Just 31% of voters say they approve of the government’s efforts to deal with the financial crisis while 54% disapprove.  Disapproval reaches across income levels and ideology.

“What is striking,” said Woolley, “is the contrast between the gigantic scale of government intervention and the disappointment of the public. The current president used up his political capital before the economic crisis came along.”

Voters are also negative about bailing out the automakers: 48% say they oppose loaning government money to General Motors and Chrysler, while 42% support it.  “The argument over whether or not and how much to underwrite the carmakers is not going to go away for a long time,” said Woolley.  In assigning blame, voters point to the companies themselves rather than to Wall Street as the source of the automakers’ trouble. Only 13% say Wall Street and the bad economy are responsible for the financial difficulty of the automakers, while 43% point to company management as the primary culprit, and another 13% point to the unions.

In the final days of his term, the outgoing president remains mired in disapproval.  Just 21% approve of President Bush’s handling of his job, while 70% disapprove.  His 21% approval is actually up five points from just before the election, a difference reflected in the fact that half of Republicans (50%) now approve of the president, while about a third disapprove (36%).  Before the November election the numbers were reversed: Half of Republicans disapproved of Bush and about a third approved (37%).

Tracking the President for Two Terms

Fairleigh Dickinson University’s poll tracked Bush’s political fortunes in the Garden State for eight years. In the weeks after the terror attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., the President’s approval ratings soared: 91% of NJ voters approved of the way he was dealing with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, including 67% of Democrats; 73% approved of his handling of the economy in the aftermath of the attacks, including 65% of Democrats; and overall, 84% of approved of the job George W. Bush was doing as president.  A year later, 58% of New Jerseyans approved of the United States taking military action against Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein from power.  Although Democrats split on the question, 45% agreeing and 43% disagreeing, independents approved by 55% to 32% and Republican voters approved by 76% to 13%.

The 43rd president’s popularity was strongly associated with the public’s perception of the war in Iraq. In April 2003, after the initial stages of the invasion, 67% of New Jersey voters said going to war in Iraq was the right thing to do, and 80% said the war had gone better than expected. At the same time, 62% of voters gave President Bush marks of “good” and “excellent,” and the majority (55%) said the country was moving in the right direction.

But by September 2003, a dramatic shift had begun. The majority of voters (55%) gave President Bush a job rating of “only fair” or “poor,” and almost half (47%) said U.S. military efforts in Iraq were going worse than expected. The majority (54%) still believed that going into Iraq was the right thing to do, but the percentage of New Jerseyans who thought the war was a mistake had risen to 40% from 23%.  In addition, a majority (52%) of Garden State voters said the country was “off on the wrong track.”

With the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003 and some good economic news, the president regained some popularity, and in January 2004 a slim majority (51%) judged his performance as “good” or “excellent.”  But that would be the last time a majority of New Jerseyans saw the Bush administration in a favorable light.  By July of the same year, for the first time, a majority of voters (48%) concluded that going into war in Iraq was a mistake. For the remainder of Bush’s second term, negative perceptions of the war clung to his presidency and slowly sank his approval ratings.

By the final weeks of the 2008 presidential campaign, with the country in economic crisis, the president’s approval touched bottom at 16%, and his disapproval peaked at 76%.  More than three-quarters of voters (78%) said the country was on the wrong track. And while 52% said the military effort in Iraq was going fairly well or very well, 63% said the invasion of Iraq was a mistake.

After two terms, George W. Bush leaves office with a disapproval rate of 70% among Garden State voters.  “Voters tend to remember presidents for their worst moments, rather than their best,” said Woolley. “His legacy will be associated not only with a prolonged war in Iraq but with economic crisis.”

The most recent Fairleigh Dickinson University poll of 1170 registered voters statewide was conducted by telephone from Jan. 2, through Jan. 11, 2009, and has a margin of error of +/- 3 percentage points.

Contact: Peter Woolley 973.670.3239

For more information, please call (973) 443-8661.

Copyright © 2009, Fairleigh Dickinson University. All rights reserved. FDU PublicMind Poll [Latest update 090115]