President Bush will have the attention and the good will of the American public to an extraordinary extent when he steps to the podium to deliver his State of the Union address. Tuesday’s speech will be the most eagerly anticipated in years – our mid-January survey found 54% calling it more important than past efforts, up considerably from the Clinton era.
The public wants to hear Bush outline the next steps in the war on terrorism, of course, but it also expects him to chart a course for bringing the nation prosperity as well as peace. Recent polls show that Americans rate reviving the economy to be every bit as important as the struggle against terrorism, with other issues relegated to the back burner. In fact, the latest New York Times/CBS News poll reports that “the economy has now supplanted terrorism- albeit by a slight margin – as the issue people want their elected officials to make a top priority.”
Bush’s deep reservoir of public support extends to his handling of the economy. Six-in-ten in the Pew Research Center poll approved of his performance on that issue; the NBC News/Wall Street Journal found that, by 42%-29%, the public thinks Bush has a better approach than the Democrats for getting the nation out of recession.
Still, there are clear warning signs for the president as well. The president’s tax cut gets mixed reviews, as a solid majority in the New York Times/CBS News poll said the disappearing budget surplus could have been better utilized in shoring up Social Security. Moreover, the Enron scandal exposes one of Bush’s major vulnerabilities – the perception that his administration is too closely tied to corporate interests. So far, the fallout from Enron seems to be landing mostly on the GOP and Bush’s White House, not on the president himself. Fully 45% in the New York Times survey said Enron executives had closer ties to Republicans, just 10% pointed to the Democrats.
The mood of bipartisanship that prevailed when Bush gave his last major address to Congress in September has faded, amid fights over the economy and the Enron investigation. But the public wants – and expects – the two sides to work cooperatively. Fully 53% in the Pew poll said they anticipate more bipartisanship this year, up from 41% a year ago. Many of the themes from Bush’s first months in office have been overtaken by events, but one – his promise to change the tone in Washington – remains more relevant than ever.