Poll Shows Bush's Ratings Weathering Business Scandals

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Poll Shows Bush's Ratings Weathering Business Scandals

By Richard Morin and Claudia Deane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 17, 2002; Page A01

The recent barrage of congressional and media criticism directed at President Bush for his handling of the widening corporate financial scandal has failed to damage his popularity, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The survey found that Bush's job approval rating stands at 72 percent, virtually unchanged from a month ago. An equally large proportion of people still view the president as honest and trustworthy, despite recent news accounts that he benefited as a business executive from some of the same practices he now publicly criticizes.

Still, Bush faces a public that is deeply angered by corporate wrongdoing and broadly skeptical of the way he has handled the crisis so far -- doubts that could eat into his overall popularity if the scandal continues to grow.

Only about half of the public -- 49 percent -- currently approves of the way Bush has dealt with the crisis in corporate America. Forty-three percent disapprove.

An overwhelming majority supported Bush's proposals to increase penalties for financial fraud and create a business corruption task force. But more than half -- 54 percent -- said these measures were "not tough enough" -- a view shared by most Democrats and political independents, but also by four in 10 Republicans. Another 38 percent said the president's recommendations were "about right."

The survey comes as the issue of corporate responsibility has moved to the top of the political agenda in Washington. Bush has delivered two major speeches detailing his plans to investigate and punish executives who lie about the financial condition of their companies, and both houses of Congress, sensing growing public outrage over the scandals, have passed legislation that goes significantly beyond the president's initial proposals.

The poll suggests that neither political party has gained an edge on the issue, though Democrats sense that Republicans are increasingly vulnerable as the fall election season approaches.

A total of 1,512 randomly selected adults were interviewed July 11-15 for this survey. Margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus three percentage points.

The survey found that slightly more than half -- 52 percent -- think the tougher penalties and increased enforcement recommended by Bush will significantly reduce wrongdoing by major firms, while 46 percent disagree.

"I think [Bush] went as far as he should" in his recommendations for reform, said Jane Welter, 71, a retired elementary school teacher who lives in San Antonio. "I have to trust someone who knows more about it than I do, and I do trust the president."

But she wondered whether anything the government does will make a difference. "It's a problem with what's in people's hearts," she said. "It's the people, not the government. Laws are better than nothing . . . [But] laws alone aren't the answer."

Most Americans seem to agree, according to the Post-ABC News poll. Fewer than one in six expressed confidence in the honesty of corporations or the people who lead them. And when asked to identify the major cause of the scandals, the public blamed greedy executives (88 percent), negligent boards of directors (74 percent) and the overall moral decline in society (74 percent).

Significantly fewer said the major problem was lax outside auditing of corporate books (66 percent) or the lack of oversight by federal regulators and prosecutors (56 percent).

Some questioned whether Bush, as a former business executive, was committed to rooting out corporate fraud. According to the poll, half of all adults think Bush cares more about protecting the interests of large corporations over the needs of "ordinary working people," while nearly four in 10 disagreed.

"I've always thought that he's run by big money and that we'd have problems with big business if he won, and now we have them," said Richard Portmann, 65, a retired college instructor who lives in Fergus Falls, Minn. "I think we've got good enough laws to get them if we really want to. But I don't think Bush wants to."

Others saw Bush's business experience as an advantage. "I think he has a better understanding of it because of his business background," said Chris Hurley, 31, who works in the construction supply business in Wayne, Mich. "He's not afraid to stand his ground; that's what's needed to take on these corporations."

So far, neither Bush nor congressional Democrats have won a clear political advantage on the issue of corporate fraud: 42 percent expressed confidence in the president, but 44 percent preferred congressional Democrats.

Still, the public trusts the Democratic Party more than the GOP to crack down on financial wrongdoing -- a sign of potential problems for Republicans in the fall congressional elections.

Other results from the poll suggest the political impact of the scandal is far from certain.

More than six in 10 say the issue of financial fraud and accounting irregularities by corporations will be "very important" in determining their votes this fall, but the issue ranks behind education, the economy, health care and the war on terrorism as a voting concern. When the local issues that usually dominate congressional elections are added to the mix, the impact of the scandals as an election issue is further muted.

The poll results and subsequent interviews with survey respondents set in sharp relief two broadly conflicting strains of opinion that policymakers and politicians must reconcile to win public support for financial reform.

Americans are clearly outraged by the scandals, particularly by reports that some senior executives and corporate insiders reaped huge windfalls from failing companies while employees, pension holders and stock owners were left with little or nothing.

At the same time, Americans retain their traditional suspicion of government regulation. By a margin of 48 percent to 37 percent, they think enforcement of existing laws, rather than new rules, is the best way to deal with corporate financial abuse. There is, however, some evidence that support for new laws might be growing. In the past two weeks, during which Bush offered his reform package and Congress took up the issue, the proportion saying that additional regulations are necessary rose by eight percentage points.

"Better enforcement, that is what's needed, with longer sentences, and not the government looking over businessmen's shoulders," said Sima Jorgic, 55, a civil engineer living in Atlanta. "It's a shame that they throw people in jail for writing a bad check, but people who misused or stole billions are walking around free."

The survey found that an overwhelming majority of Americans endorsed reforms proposed by Bush last week in his speech on Wall Street. Nine in 10 favored longer prison sentences and stiffer fines for executives who conceal their companies' financial conditions. Seven in 10 supported creating a federal task force to direct government investigations of alleged corporate financial crimes.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company
 


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