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Bush Report Card: The Economy and Foreign Affairs

Bush Report Card: The Economy and Foreign Affairs

In a broad sense, the president's main policy focuses are on the economy and foreign affairs. As such, Gallup has regularly asked Americans whether they approve of the way the president is handling these areas. In George W. Bush's first term in office, an average of 51% of Americans approved of his handling of the economy and 58% approved of the way he handled foreign affairs. Both compare favorably with what other recent presidents have averaged in their terms.

Gallup began asking regularly about economic and foreign affairs approval during the Reagan presidency, so it is possible to compare Bush's averages with the last four presidents', encompassing a total of six four-year terms*. 

The Economy

Generally speaking, presidents have not received rave reviews for their performance on the economy. In the last six presidential terms, only two presidents have averaged approval ratings above 50%. Even in Ronald Reagan's second term, when the economic growth was strong, only 48% of Americans on average approved of the way he was handling the economy. That followed a 45% approval rating on the economy in Reagan's first term, which was perhaps more understandable given the recession of 1982.  

The elder George Bush suffered a dismal 29% economic approval rating average in his one term as president, largely resulting from a recession in 1991 and the perception throughout the 1992 presidential campaign that the economy was in bad shape. Bill Clinton averaged a 44% economic approval rating in his first term, but a robust 70% in his second term when the economy boomed. 

George W. Bush also dealt with a recession in his first term, in 2001. Though it was mild and did not last long, his first-term economic approval ratings were helped by a "halo effect" from his high overall job ratings after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. From October 2001 through June 2002, at least 6 in 10 Americans approved of Bush's handling of the economy, even though this coincided with the recession and with the spate of corporate scandals. During that time, Bush's overall job rating consistently stayed above 75%. 

The trend on Bush's economic approval rating shows it running about 10 points to 15 points below his overall approval rating until about early 2004, when the gap narrowed slightly. The last time both were asked in the same poll (Jan. 7-9, 2005), his overall approval rating (52%) was three points higher than his economic approval rating (49%). 

Foreign Affairs

Americans rated Bush more highly on foreign affairs than on the economy in his first term. His average foreign affairs approval rating was 58%. That is a higher average rating than Reagan or Clinton received in either of their terms -- Reagan averaged a 42% foreign affairs approval rating in his first term and 46% in his second; Clinton averaged 45% in his first term and improved to 56% in his second. Of the most recent presidents, the elder George Bush owns the highest average foreign affairs approval rating, 65%, helped greatly by the U.S. victory in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

The current president Bush's foreign affairs approval ratings more closely tracked his overall job rating than did his economic rating, although his overall job score was still consistently higher than his foreign affairs rating. 

It is notable that both of Bush's two primary issue ratings are lower than his overall rating. Reagan exhibited a similar pattern while in office, while Clinton and the elder George Bush's overall ratings fell between their ratings on the economy and foreign affairs. 

While that could suggest that George W. Bush's overall job ratings may be higher than warranted, it is also possible that the public was primarily evaluating Bush on other issues. Obviously, the terrorism issue has been at the forefront of Bush's term in office, and is the reason for his sky-high approval ratings from late 2001-2002. Bush still maintains a positive score on his handling of the terror issue, with 58% approving in the most recent Gallup Poll that measured this. 

In his second term, the situation in Iraq could play a similar role. Bush has a much lower approval rating on Iraq (42%), and the war is likely one major reason Bush's job approval ratings were mediocre last year. 

If the economy continues to grow in Bush's second term, his economic approval ratings should improve. However, his foreign affairs rating will be influenced by how things evolve in Iraq -- a weaker point for Bush -- and how well he handles the terror threat, to date, one of his strengths.    

*Results are based on averages of polls conducted during a president's term, with typical sample sizes of 1,000-1,500. 

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