Indeed, given pro and con arguments (avoiding further casualties vs. encouraging anti-government insurgents), Americans by a substantial 20-point margin, 59 to 39 percent, oppose setting a deadline for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq. (Those who favor a deadline divide about evenly on whether the end of 2006, as suggested by Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., is about right, or too late.)
While Bush's 45-percent approval rating is weak -- majority disapproval is never a good thing -- it's by no means out of the ordinary. Among the more-popular recent presidents, Bill Clinton saw lows of 43 percent in the summer of 1993 and 44 percent in 1994, and Ronald Reagan hit 42 percent in early 1983 and 44 percent in early 1987. (The latter was Iran-Contra inspired; the others, largely economic.)
But the mid- to low-40s are kind of a break point; presidents who've gone lower are those who tend to be remembered as less popular. Bush's father, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, all one-termers, bottomed out at 33, 28 and 37 percent, respectively. Richard Nixon saw a scandal-induced 23 percent in a Gallup poll in January 1974.
What seem to be different are the factors driving majority disapproval of Bush -- not the more usual culprits of the economy or scandal, but, at least in good measure, a less-than-popular war (although gas prices certainly are not helping). The possible parallel there is with Lyndon B. Johnson, who spent most of 1968 in the low 40s, bottoming out at 35 percent approval that August. (In Gallup polling in the summer of '68, 53 percent called the Vietnam War a mistake, as many as now view the Iraq war critically.)
Even though Bush's ratings on Iraq haven't worsened, the war has gained some ground on the public's agenda: Twenty-nine percent call it the highest priority for Bush and Congress, compared with 26 percent who cite the economy. That puts Iraq numerically (albeit not significantly) ahead of the economy for the first time this year; mentions of Iraq have gained seven points since spring, while the economy's lost six. Seventeen percent mention terrorism as the top priority, up from 12 percent in April.
Handling terrorism is the only issue of seven tested in this poll on which Bush gets majority approval. Still, some others also show gains. While 52 percent disapprove of his work on Social Security, that's down from 62 percent in early June; the 40 percent who now approve is the most since April 2004. It may have helped that there's been less focus lately on Bush's less-than-popular Social Security reform plan.
Fifty-four percent disapprove of Bush's work on the economy; this peaked at 59 percent in March 2004. Fifty-seven percent disapprove of his work on immigration, not good, but essentially stable since January 2004. On Bush's approach to abortion, of interest given his nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court, the public divides evenly, 44-44 percent. As noted, Bush's rating on gas prices is particularly severe.
Beyond job performance, Bush has difficulty on personal empathy as well. Forty percent of Americans think he understands the problems of people like them; 59 percent say he doesn't. But this, too, has been quite stable, in this case since early 2004.