Are Improving Economic Attitudes Too Little and Late for GOP?

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So what do Americans think about President Bush's handling of economic policy? A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows attitudes are improving, with 46 percent of voters approving his management and 48 percent disapproving. That's a gain from 39 percent approval and 56 percent disapproval in June. To take a different angle on the issue, I gave a call to Richard Curtin, director of the University of Michigan's Survey of Consumers. The school's monthly poll of 500 consumers asks a question that rarely gets much publicity. Here it is, word for word: "As to the economic policy of the government–I mean steps taken to fight inflation or unemployment–would you say the government is doing a good job, only fair, or a poor job?"

So how have people been answering that query?

"It has rebounded of late," Curtin says. "The October number was 21 percent 'good' and 34 percent 'poor.' In June, it was 13 percent 'good' versus 39 'poor.' That's a bit lower than average and down from where it was when he took office."

Indeed, back in January 2001, as the economy was slipping into recession, 41 percent thought Uncle Sam was doing a good job handling the economy. But that current 21 percent number is the same as it was on Election Day 2004, even though employment and wage growth are way better today than they were then. During the 2002 midterm elections, 22 percent rated the government's performance as good. And in November 1994–when the GOP captured the House and Senate–just 17 percent thought the Clinton administration was doing a good job with the economy.

Probably the last big moment for influencing voters' economic perceptions before the midterm elections comes Friday, when the latest employment numbers are released by the Labor Department. The consensus forecast is for 125,000 net new jobs in October (versus 51,000 in September) with the unemployment rate holding steady at 4.6 percent. The private ADP survey of employment –ADP is a payroll-processing firm–came out this morning and showed a rise of 148,000 new jobs for last month. One other thing about Labor's numbers: They are often subject to large revisions and may be dramatically undercounting.

As one economist told me, "These preliminary jobs numbers are pretty much worthless." Still, they will surely get a lot of media play on Friday.