Political Facts of Life May Be Changing

The answer is cut taxes. What's the question? For Republicans, it doesn't matter. "Cut taxes" is the answer to every question, especially ones about the economic slowdown. "Our first challenge is to allow Americans to keep more of their money so they can spend, and save, and invest," President Bush said in announcing his new economic plan.

Americans hate taxes. That attitude has held steady for so long that it seems like a fact of political life. But the facts of life may be changing.

Republicans rely on the fact that tax resentment has been high for decades. Back in 1962, 48 percent of Americans said their federal income taxes were too high. In the mid-1960s, that number climbed to a majority. And resentment stayed high for decades. In 22 Gallup Polls taken between 1962 and 2000, the number of Americans who said taxes were too high averaged more than 60 percent.

As recently as April 2001, nearly two-thirds of Americans said their federal income taxes were too high. In mid-January, the USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll asked the question again and found tax resentment had gone down—way down. Now, just 47 percent of Americans say their taxes are too high. That's the lowest figure in more than 40 years.

Why tax resentment suddenly dropped? It's not because the tax burden is so much lower. Figures from Citizens for Tax Justice show that the average American's tax burden has declined only slightly over the past decade.

More likely, it's because of 9/11. Americans want government to protect them—so fewer people are complaining about taxes.

Do Americans suddenly love taxes? Not exactly. Nearly half still say their federal income taxes are too high. But 51 percent say they're not. This is the first time since 1949 that most Americans have said their income taxes are not too high.

In April 2001, before the terror attacks, 73 percent of Republicans and 60 percent of Democrats thought their taxes were too high. Since then, tax resentment among Republicans has dropped by 20 points. It's down 20 points among Democrats, too. Just over half of Republicans continue to say their taxes are too high. Most Democrats now say they're not.

The change helps explain why the response to President Bush's first tax cut in 2001 was far more enthusiastic than the response he's getting now, and why Democrats who supported him in 2001 don't seem to be there for a second round of tax cuts.

That also explains why Bush did not get much of a boost in the polls from his economic stimulus plan. His ratings on economic issues have continued to slide. Does the public approve of the way Bush is handling taxes? The response in the mid-January Gallup Poll was only narrowly favorable: 49 percent said yes, 45 percent said no. That's not a resounding cheer.

The president's ratings on the economy also indicate that Americans are divided: 48 percent approve, 47 percent disapprove of Bush's handling of economic issues. His ratings on managing the federal budget are even lower: 43 percent approve, 47 percent disapprove. Apparently, the public has heard about what Bush's plan could do to the deficit.

Do Americans want Congress to pass the Bush economic plan? Yes, but only with major changes. Just a quarter of those polled say Congress should pass the plan as the president proposed it. Forty percent say pass it after making major changes. Only 15 percent want Congress to reject the plan outright.

Americans like some of the ideas in the president's plan, but they say it has problems. Altogether, their response is tepid. Bush has one more opportunity to rally public support: the State of the Union address next week. That's likely to be the best forum and the largest audience he will have all year for addressing the economy. After that, the focus will be on Iraq.

As things stand, the president could have trouble getting re-elected. Polls show an unusual anomaly. His job-approval rating is hovering around 60 percent, normally a safe level. But only 36 percent of Americans now say they will definitely vote to re-elect Bush. About a third say they'd definitely vote against him. And a third say they could go either way.

The economy has eclipsed the war on terrorism as the country's major concern. Gallup recently asked people whether economic conditions or terrorism will be more important to their vote next year. A majority chose the economy. Only a third cited terrorism. Among people who say they'll vote on the economy, only a quarter will definitely vote to re-elect Bush. Among those who say their main issue is terrorism, nearly half say they'll definitely vote for him.

Is this president in danger of turning into his father? The first President Bush was accused in 1992 of being "out of touch" with ordinary people. Do Americans think this President Bush is out of touch? Half say yes; just under half say no. That's not a good sign for Bush II. The president's economic plan may have sent a damaging message: 56 percent of Americans now say that Bush's policies favor the rich.

Moreover, the evidence reveals that 9/11 has changed the political world in a way that the president could never have expected. Americans now value government more and complain about taxes less.