WASHINGTON -- After months of recession, Americans favor returning to an old idea -- a government jobs program -- to kick start the economy, a new national poll has found.
The opinion survey, by the Times Mirror Center for The People & The Press, was filled with ominous political signs for President Bush, including the lowest job approval ratings of his presidency. Forty-six percent say they now approve of the way Mr. Bush is handling his job, down from 55 percent in November.
At the same time, the poll, completed last week, found conflicting feelings about the economy, including the first hints that the public's sour mood could be bottoming out or even turning around.
Those questioned were slightly more optimistic about their personal financial prospects than a similar group of Americans surveyed back in November, while at the same time they registered even deeper dissatisfaction with the way things are going in the country.
The telephone survey by Times Mirror, which publishes The Sun and other newspapers, asked a national cross section of 1,220 adults what economic proposal President Bush should announce his State of the Union speech Jan. 28.
A clear majority -- 52 percent -- selected a public works program for the unemployed as their first choice.
The idea of government as the employer of last resort has its roots in the liberal Democratic politics of the 1930s. It has largely fallen out of favor in recent decades with the rise of Republican conservatism.
But the survey found that public works jobs were the remedy of choice of 42 percent of Republicans, compared with 20 percent who favored a capital gains tax cut to stimulate the economy, and 55 percent of those ages 18 to 29.
"Public works is a tangible step that people see that deals directly with the thing they are most concerned about, which is jobs. Jobs problems are at the core of this recession," said Andrew Kohut, director of surveys for the Times Mirror Center.
There is no indication that Mr. Bush is planning a major public works initiative in his new budget.Many economists believe that such jobs programs take too long to take effect and end up slowing recovery rather than triggering it.
One idea Mr. Bush is expected to offer -- a cut in the capital gains tax -- was the second most popular remedy in the poll, gaining support from 17 percent of those questioned. Other likely elements of the Bush package -- an income tax cut in the $300 range and incentives to help first-time home buyers -- were picked by fewer than 10 percent.
The poll found that nearly nine out of 10 Americans are convinced that the country is in a recession (51 percent) or a depression (38 percent).
And there is a deep, and rising, feeling that the country is on the wrong track, one of the indicators of public sentiment watched most closely by political strategists.
By a margin of more than 2-to-1, Americans say they are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country, the highest level of dissatisfaction of the Bush presidency.
But the poll also found that 45 percent believe they are better off financially today than they were four years ago, up from 40 percent when the same question was asked back in November.
Similarly, a clear majority -- 53 percent -- feel that they will be better off financially next year at this time, compared with 49 percent in November.
But the greatest fear about the economic future is the further loss of U.S. jobs to foreign countries.
After three straight Republican administrations, there appears to a growing willingness to let Democrats have a turn at straightening things out. Asked which political party would do a better job of protecting U.S. jobs, Americans chose the Democrats by a 49-to-30 margin.
More than three-quarters of the population believes that Mr. Bush is not doing all he can to improve economic conditions, and that includes 64 percent of Republicans. Asked whether Mr. Bush or an unnamed Democratic candidate would do a better job of creating economic conditions for people like themselves, Americans chose the Democrat by a 39-to-13 margin.
Several swing voter groups, including younger, Republican-leaning independents, also believe that a Democrat would do more to serve their economic interests.
Despite these political warning signs, however, Mr. Bush starts the election year in a dead heat with his Democratic rivals, most of whom remain unknown to a majority of Americans, the poll found.
Less than a majority -- 42 percent -- said that they would like to see Mr. Bush re-elected in November. An identical number said that they would prefer that a Democrat won.
There were no hypothetical matchups between Mr. Bush and his potential Democratic rivals, however. Other surveys have found that when Mr. Bush is matched against a named opponent, instead of a hypothetical Democrat, he is preferred by a majority of those questioned.