The Wide Partisan Divide

Spring 1991: President George H.W. Bush wins a great military victory over Saddam Hussein. But the U.S. economy is weak. The president's victory glow quickly fades.

Spring 2003: President George W. Bush wins a great military victory over Saddam Hussein. But the U.S. economy is weak. Will this president's victory glow fade as quickly as his father's?

Well, is the economy is as weak as it was in March 1991, when the first Gulf War ended? Twelve years ago, the nation's unemployment rate was 6.7 percent. And the economic growth rate was negative (-2.0 percent for the first quarter of 1991). The country was in recession.

Now the unemployment rate is 5.8 percent. The economy is growing, but very slowly (1.4 percent for the last quarter of 2002, the latest figure available). Some are calling this a "jobless recovery."

The weak economy is technically not in recession. It's a small difference, but one that shows up in the public's assessments. Back in 1991, despite all the good feelings about the first Gulf War, Americans said, by a narrow majority (53 percent to 45 percent), that the nation's economy was in bad shape, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll. Now, the public is divided. Exactly half (50 percent) say the economy is in good shape, an April 11-13 Times/CBS poll shows. Just under half (46 percent) say it's in bad shape. Those numbers are not great for the president, but are not quite as bad as after the first Gulf War.

The first President Bush was criticized as "out of touch" with ordinary Americans, especially when he opposed extending unemployment benefits because he was concerned about the budget deficit. "I hope that because people need help, we can get out and give it to them right quick," he said at a Republican Party conference in 1992. "I do remember a time or two in the past where I had to veto legislation that just would have gone wild in terms of spending, and I am prepared to do that again if we have to," he added.

The current president has a more populist touch, at least one that's more authentically Texan. Unlike his father, this president is pushing Congress to pass an expensive program that he claims will stimulate the economy-namely, tax cuts. What about the deficit? "In two years' time, this nation has experienced war, a recession, and a national emergency, which has caused our government to run a deficit," George W. Bush said in the White House Rose Garden last week. "The best way to reduce the deficit is with more growth in our economy." The deficit is no longer an issue for him or for most other Republicans. They've gone over to the supply side.

So is this President Bush in a stronger position politically than his father was 12 years ago? Apparently not. The first President Bush came out of his war with a spectacular 89 percent job-approval rating. This President Bush comes out with a 73 percent rating - very impressive, but not spectacular.

At this stage in their presidencies, both men enjoyed solid support with their Republican base - 96 percent or above, according to the Gallup Poll, even though the elder Bush had raised taxes the previous year. The big difference shows up in their ratings among Democrats. The father came out of his war with 80 percent approval among Democrats. The son's approval rating among Democrats is just 46 percent.

The current president is a much more partisan figure than his father was. Moreover, 1991 was an era of good feelings. Today, the country is much more partisan - and not just because of the president. The partisanship is also a legacy of the Clinton wars and the 2000 election.

Consider this index of partisan division in the United States: the difference between Republicans and Democrats in the president's job-approval rating. Just after the first Gulf War, in March 1991, that difference was 16 points (96 percent among Republicans, 80 percent among Democrats). Currently, the difference stands at 51 points (97 percent among Republicans, 46 percent among Democrats).

Before the 1990s, the partisan split usually stayed below 50 points, rising during times of crisis or controversy (a 60-point divide during the Reagan recession of 1982, 58 points during the Bush recession of 1992). The Clinton presidency seems to have produced a permanent partisan crisis in America. The partisan split remained at least 60 points during Bill Clinton's first term (which included the tax hike, the health care debate, the government shutdown). It stayed above 50 percent during the impeachment crisis of Clinton's second term.

What surprised a lot of observers is that the public's reaction to President George W. Bush is every bit as partisan as it was to his Democratic predecessor. In August 2001, before the terrorist attacks, the partisan split was 57 points. September 11 did bring the country together temporarily, and the partisan divide narrowed to 20 points in November 2001. But by the 2002 midterm elections, it had widened to 53 points. And, uncharacteristically for wartime, the partisan divide remained high this year during the conflict in Iraq.

What does this mean for this president's re-election prospects? It means the country is still divided, despite Bush's high approval ratings. September 11 might have eased that partisan division. The war in Iraq did not.