updated 12/22/2003 3:32:33 AM ET 2003-12-22T08:32:33

President Bush is getting good marks on the economy from a clear majority of the public at a time when consumer confidence has risen to its highest levels since early 2002, an Associated Press poll finds.

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People are increasingly optimistic about the economy in the next six months and feeling more secure about their jobs, according to the poll conducted for the AP by Ipsos-Public Affairs. The uptick in Bush’s rating comes on an issue certain to be central to the 2004 presidential campaign.

In all, 55 percent of registered voters said they approve of Bush’s handling of the economy and 43 percent disapproved, according to the survey. That is Bush’s best number on this measure in Ipsos polls since the third quarter of 2002, though he briefly came close to this level — at 52 percent — last July.

A month ago, 46 percent approved and 51 percent disapproved of Bush on the economy.
In the new survey, 23 percent said they strongly approve of Bush’s handling of the economy, 19 percent said they somewhat approve and 13 percent initially reported mixed feelings but leaned toward approval.

The public’s overall feelings on the economy have risen steadily over the past few months.
“Confidence has improved sharply since the spring, when we were all worried about the war with Iraq,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist with Economy.com.

Mixed signs of recovery
The economy, primed by low interest rates and tax cuts, is showing mixed signs of recovery.

There are projections of rapid growth for 2004, signs of an improving job picture and a rebound in the stock market. But the nation has lost more than 2 million jobs, economists are uncertain about the turnaround in employment and states are reeling from revenue losses.

The AP-Ipsos index of consumer attitudes, a composite measure of opinions about the economy generally and consumers’ own personal finances, reached 100 in December.

That is the same level as the baseline number at the start of 2002, when Ipsos’ index of consumer attitudes and spending by household, known as the CASH index, was set up. It stayed close to that level through May 2002.

At that time, the economy was starting to bounce back from the shock of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. In the months preceding the attacks, the economy was faltering and other surveys found that consumer confidence was down, too.

Consumers increasingly optimistic
According to the Ipsos consumer index, confidence dipped sharply into the 60s in early 2003 leading up to the Iraq war and rallied in April during the war.

Since October, consumers have grown increasingly optimistic. They are more upbeat about their local economy in the next six months, more comfortable making a major purchase and more confident about their job security, according to the poll.

“There is a general sense that some of the geopolitical uncertainties in the world are abating,” Zandi said. “Those concerns are not as much on our minds as a year ago.”

Groups that have shifted toward approval of Bush on the economy in the past month in the poll are less-educated women, suburbanites, swing voters and Republicans.

59 percent approval rating
Bush’s overall job approval rating was 59 percent, boosted by the rising confidence and the capture of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein on Dec. 13.

“I’m optimistic, things are starting to turn around a little bit,” said Jan Polendey, a mother of four from Canby, Ore. “Gas prices have gone down a little bit.”

While some people are gaining confidence the economy will grow stronger, many are not convinced.

Nearly four in 10 respondents, or 37 percent, said they expect their local economy to get stronger in the next six months. But half, 51 percent, said they think it will stay the same.

“Here in this part of the state of Kentucky, the economy’s about the same as it was,” said Steve Abner, an electronics plant worker who lives in Annville in the southern part of the state. “But as a whole, I think the economy might be coming around.”

The AP-Ipsos poll of 1,001 adults was taken Dec. 15-17. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points, slightly larger for subgroups like registered voters.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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