Poll: Ethical Issues Tar Bush Administration

Most Americans see the indictment of Dick Cheney's chief of staff as a sign of broader ethical wrongdoing within the Bush administration. And the president's own job approval rating has slipped under 40 percent for the first time in his career.

Few think Cheney, Karl Rove or George W. Bush himself did anything illegal in the CIA leak case in which Lewis "Scooter" Libby was indicted. But nearly seven in 10 call the charge against Libby a serious crime, not a minor or technical one. And well under half, 41 percent, see the case as an isolated incident; 55 percent instead think it's a sign of broader ethical problems within the administration.

Sampling, data collection and tabulation for this poll were done by TNS.
 

The Libby Indictment
   
Isolated Incident   41%
Indicates Broader Ethical Wrongdoing   55

After perhaps the worst political week of his career, just 39 percent of Americans in this ABC News/Washington Post poll now approve of Bush's overall performance in office, fewer than four in 10 for the first time. Fifty-eight percent disapprove, a new high, albeit by a single point.

Those numbers are little changed -- not significantly worse -- from their immediate post-Hurricane Katrina levels. But the intensity of sentiment is running heavily against the president: In another first, the number of Americans who "strongly" disapprove of his job performance outnumber his strong approvers by more than 2-1, 45 percent to 22 percent.

While intense partisanship remains, Bush has lost support within his own party as well as outside it. At the start of this year just eight percent of Republicans disapproved of his job performance; today that has grown to 25 percent. And disapproval spikes to a whopping 87 percent among Democrats. Both are new highs.

Ethics

Nearly two-thirds of Americans, 64 percent, give Bush a negative rating ("only fair" or "poor") for his handling of ethics in government. That's about the same as Bill Clinton's ethics rating at the end of his career, and at most only slightly worse that Ronald Reagan's. But both Clinton and Reagan faced serious ethical crises in their second terms -- Clinton, the Monica Lewinsky scandal; Reagan, Iran-Contra.

Nearly a third of Republicans rate Bush negatively for handling ethics; that soars to large majorities of independents (71 percent) and Democrats (85 percent) alike. And in another view that underscores the challenges he faces, 46 percent overall say the overall level of ethics and honesty in the federal government has fallen with Bush as president, while just 15 percent say it's improved.

Bush's 39 percent job approval itself is an unenviable milestone. Neither Clinton nor Reagan, the last two two-term presidents, fell below 40 percent approval; Clinton's worst was 43 percent early in his first term, Reagan's, 42 percent in the aftermath of the 1982 recession. But others have done worse: Lyndon Johnson's career low hit 35 percent during the tumultuous summer of 1968. Bush's father fell to 33 percent the summer before he lost re-election to a second term. Jimmy Carter saw 28 percent approval; Richard Nixon, a low of 23 percent.

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