A fresh wave of public skepticism confronts the Bush administration on current issues ranging from the unrest in Iraq to the ports deal and privacy rights at home. And when it comes to the Hurricane Katrina response or prescription drug benefits -- don't ask.
On Iraq, President Bush's single biggest challenge, eight in 10 Americans see civil war as likely and a record 65 percent say the administration lacks a clear plan to resolve the conflict; assessments of U.S. progress have tanked in the face of the current violence.
Fifty-seven percent in this ABC News/Washington Post poll say the war wasay not worth fighting, and just half say the war has improved long-term U.S. security, its basic rationale. When a president's in tough straits, the economy usually is the prime cause; Bush's case instead looks more like Lyndon Johnson's -- an unpopular war.
Nor does the administration get a break at home. In the latest controversy, not only do 70 percent oppose the administration-approved Dubai Ports World deal, but 53 percent oppose it "strongly," a remarkable (and largely bipartisan) level of sentiment. On domestic security more broadly, while it received majority support for renewal of the Patriot Act and more narrow support for warrantless wiretaps, there's been a slight negative shift on whether the administration is doing enough to protect Americans' rights in the war on terrorism. Fifty-one percent think not; that's more than half, albeit barely, for the first time.
On social policy, the new Medicare prescription drug plan began with a razz: A record 58 percent disapprove of Bush's work on the issue. (Seniors don't like it better than anyone else does.) And more, 63 percent, disapprove of the way Bush handled the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, the subject of recent critical reports. His disapproval rating on Katrina is nine points higher now than it was two weeks after the storm itself. (The president visits New Orleans and the Gulf Coast on Wednesday.)
All told, majorities disapprove of Bush's work on seven out of eight issues tested in this poll, which also included health care, ethics, international affairs and the economy. The sole exception is the way he has handled terrorism, his core strength, on which 52 percent approve -- far below his career average on this issue, 67 percent.
Bush's overall job approval rating is steady but very near his career low: Forty-one percent approve, essentially the same as in January, and a scant two points above his low last fall. Fifty-eight percent disapprove, and the intensity of sentiment remains heavily against him: While 24 percent approve "strongly" of his overall job performance, nearly twice as many, 44 percent, strongly disapprove.
Bush's personal (rather than professional) rating, while slightly less negative, is running on a similar track. Fifty-four percent have an unfavorable impression of him, a new high in ABC/Post polls, compared with 46 percent who view him favorably. And again, while 28 percent have a strongly favorable opinion of the president, 42 percent have a strongly unfavorable one. (Bush's "strongly unfavorable" score is five points below Vice President Dick Cheney's, despite the negative publicity surrounding Cheney's accidental shooting of a fellow hunter.)
Where Bush goes, the Republican-controlled Congress is also going, but faster: Sixty-two percent disapprove of the way it's doing its job, the most in ABC/Post polls in 10 years. Not only do 70 percent of Democrats disapprove, so do 54 percent of Republicans. The question, as November's midterm election moves closer, is whether this in turn fuels any significant anti-incumbent sentiment.
For now, notably, the Democrats are doing little to capitalize on the opposition's weakness, and rather have lost ground. The public divides by 42-40 percent on which party it trusts to handle the nation's main problems; that's down from a 51-37 percent Democratic advantage in late January. Independents, and particularly Independent women, have backed off from the Democrats. What's grown is general disaffection: Fourteen percent of Americans now trust neither party, up by six points.
The Democrats, similarly, have lost their edge in handling the situation in Iraq -- their seven-point advantage in January is now an even split -- and they have a much lower lead in trust to handle the economy, nine points now versus 18 points six weeks ago.
The current unrest is a particular blow. The parliamentary elections in December had produced a sharp gain in public optimism that the United States was making progress in Iraq. The recent sectarian violence has erased those gains just as quickly.
Fifty-five percent believe the United States is not making significant progress restoring civil order in Iraq, up 19 points from its level shortly after the December elections. And while 49 percent see progress in establishing a democratic government, that, similarly, is down from 65 percent in December.
Although Republicans remain far more optimistic than Independents or (especially) Democrats, these changes are broadly based. Belief that the United States is making progress restoring civil order has fallen by 15 to 18 points across party lines. On progress establishing a democratic government in Iraq, confidence has fallen most sharply among Democrats (down 26 points) but also by 11 points among Republicans.
Moreover, not only do 87 percent of Democrats see civil war as likely in Iraq, but 81 percent of Independents and 72 percent of Republicans agree. There is still hope, however: Fewer overall, 34 percent, call civil war "very" likely. The rest call it somewhat so.
Despite these glum views on progress in Iraq, attitudes on U.S. troop commitment are little changed. As was the case in December, a narrow majority supports decreasing the level of U.S. forces in Iraq, but fewer than two in 10 support an immediate withdrawal of all troops.
Nonetheless, the views of progress in Iraq bear watching, since in this poll they strongly interact with views on troop reductions: People who see no progress are much more apt than others to call for a reduction in U.S. forces (about seven in 10 do so), and an immediate one (about three in 10).
A striking component of the current discontent with Bush is that it's not chiefly fueled by economic discomfort. Economic views are hardly bright -- 43 percent say the economy's in good shape, compared with 70 percent when Bush took office. But positive economic ratings today are a bit better than their average across Bush's presidency (38 percent) and well up from their low, 25 percent in January 2003.
Central to Bush's presidency has been his response to terrorism, and that remains the case. In addition to his now-slight majority approval for handling terrorism, 56 percent say the country is safer today than it was before Sept. 11, 2001 -- the chief challenge of this administration, and the one that earned it re-election.
But the number who say the country is safer is down eight points from January -- another shift that bears close watching, since this rating is so key to the administration's prospects. (In a regression analysis, views of the war are the strongest individual factor in predicting Bush's approval rating, followed by views of national security, with ratings of the economy third, when all are controlled for partisanship and ideology.)
Controversy has had a way of tracking down the Bush administration lately, and the Dubai Ports World episode is the latest example. The administration panel that approved the deal does not appear to have had its ear tuned to public opinion: Not only do 70 percent overall oppose the idea, but that includes six in 10 Republicans. Even among Republicans, a very substantial 43 percent "strongly" oppose it.
Most critics of the plan -- seven in 10 of them -- maintain that they don't want any foreign-owned company operating a U.S. port. A quarter instead say their complaint is more specific -- that the company in this case is owned by the United Arab Emirates. But knowing that other U.S. ports are managed by other foreign-owned companies doesn't change much: Even with that information, nearly six in 10 still oppose the DPW deal.
While there's criticism of the deal, there's also -- welcome to politics -- some criticism of the criticism. Half the public thinks that elected officials who've been attacking the deal are doing so mainly to use the issue for political advantage -- not mainly out of concern about national security. Fewer, 37 percent, see security concerns as the prime motivation.
Comparative data from previous presidencies do not support the notion that Bush is in some sort of inevitable second-term slump. His approval rating since his re-election has averaged 46 percent; by contrast, Bill Clinton averaged 61 percent in the same period (re-election through the following March); Ronald Reagan, 63 percent.
The difference is in their appeal to the political center and beyond. In this time frame all three of these presidents enjoyed average approval from 84 to 90 percent within their parties. But Clinton and Reagan had 60 or 65 percent approval from independents; Bush has averaged 41 percent. And Clinton and Reagan won approval from a third or more people in the opposite party; since his re-election Bush, by contrast, has averaged just 16 percent approval from Democrats (11 percent in this poll).
Indeed the data don't support the concept of an inevitable second-term slump overall. The record instead is mixed: Dwight Eisenhower did better on average in his first term, but he was strong in both. Richard Nixon did far worse in his second term, given the Watergate scandal. But Clinton's approval rating averaged much better in his second term than in his first; likewise Reagan's, albeit more modestly so.
This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone March 2-5, 2006, among a random national sample of 1,000 adults. The results have a three-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.