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Friday February 23, 2001

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Poll: Public more enthusiastic about Bush than his tax cut

By The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Americans tend to be more enthusiastic about President Bush's personal qualities a month into his first term than they are about some of his policies, notably his tax cut, a new poll shows.

A third say they'd like to hear more about Bush's policy proposals, the poll says. More than half want to hear less about former President Clinton's messy exit from office.

"We've got a new president who needs a bigger microphone," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, "because the old president is drowning him out."

Just over half, 53 percent, approve of the job Bush is doing so far, while 21 percent disapprove. This puts Bush at about the same level as Clinton at the start of his first term and Ronald Reagan at the start of his. Bush's father and Jimmy Carter both had higher approval levels after a month in office - the elder Bush at 63 percent and Carter at 71 percent.

When people were asked what they like about Bush, they were more likely to mention personal traits such as honesty, character, his religious faith and his calm demeanor than policy positions. Almost half, 45 percent, of those who voted for Democratic nominee Al Gore could name something they've heard about Bush that they liked.

When they were asked what they disliked most about Bush, they were more likely to mention policy positions like his tax cut and his stand on abortion than personal traits. Almost six in 10, however, said they could think of nothing they disliked about the president, according to the poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

One area of continuing concern for the administration: President Bush's job approval rating among blacks, 22 percent, is running 31 points behind his father's approval among that group at the same stage of his presidency, 53 percent. The younger Bush has made outreach to blacks a priority for the Republican Party, but hard feelings linger after the contested election.

Bush's proposed tax cut - a centerpiece of his administration's agenda - has found a lukewarm reception. When people were asked simply if they approved or disapproved of Bush's tax plan, 43 percent said they approve and 34 percent disapproved. Two thirds, 65 percent, said the tax cuts will benefit some much more than others and an overwhelming number of those people say it will mainly benefit the wealthy.

"Despite the fact that the public is giving Bush a good reception, public support for a tax cut is still a work in progress," Kohut said. "They still think it's for rich people."

Kohut said the best argument for the tax cuts appears to be the slowing economy.

"One thing he's got going for him is that the economy is getting worse," Kohut said. "And that's a mixed blessing at best."

When people are asked what should be done with the government's budget surplus, they place protection of programs like Social Security and Medicare at the top of the list - 37 percent - followed by spending on domestic programs like health, education and the environment at 23 percent. They were followed by tax cuts, 19 percent, and paying off the national debt at 17 percent. Tax cuts have been gaining ground politically, but have made little progress since a year ago, when 12 percent favored using the surplus for tax cuts.

The poll of 1,513 adults was taken Feb. 14-19 and has an error margin of 3 percentage points.