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).