Eight of 10 Americans say the economy is in bad shape, and President Bush is paying a clear political price for their discontent, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll. But voters know little about the Democrats who would challenge him.
The telephone survey, conducted Monday through Wednesday, shows an unpredictable terrain at the start of this election year: -- The president's approval rating is down to 48 percent, and voters are evenly divided when offered a choice between re-electing Mr. Bush or replacing him with an unspecified Democrat. But the real Democratic field has barely penetrated their consciousness, according to the telephone survey of 1,376 adults.
Still, the poll reflects the recession's toll on Mr. Bush. Only 18 percent said Mr. Bush cared "a great deal" about the needs and problems of people like themselves, down from 28 percent last March.
Thirty-five percent said they thought Mr. Bush did not care much about them, according to the poll, which has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Mindful of the dangers of seeming insensitive in a recession, the White House promoted Mr. Bush's Asian trip as an attempt to produce jobs. But even before Mr. Bush left Japan yesterday with trade pledges denounced by U.S. car makers as woefully inadequate, the public was skeptical: Fewer than a third of those surveyed said they thought Mr. Bush's recent meetings with Asian leaders would increase employment in the United States; 53 percent said they thought the trip was "mainly for show."
About two-thirds, or 67 percent, said that Mr. Bush was $l spending too much time on foreign policy and not enough on domestic affairs. That was up from the 58 percent who felt that way in October, and the 36 percent who expressed that view the previous year.
The poll indicated that the economy is at the heart of Mr. Bush's problems. Eighty-one percent said the economy is either "very" or "fairly" bad, up from 74 percent in November. Nothing came close to the economy when people were asked to cite the most important problem facing the country.
Mr. Bush's overall approval rating dropped below 50 percent for the first time in the poll, a matter of some symbolic note. But at 48 percent it was statistically indistinguishable from the 51 percent registered in November.