First was Iraq, where U.S. military casualties spiked in August, then spiked again in October; they're the fourth and fifth highest-casualty months of the 33-month war. Total U.S. military casualties hit 2,000 last week.
In this poll, 73 percent of Americans call the level of U.S. military casualties in Iraq "unacceptable," and fewer than half, 46 percent, think the war has contributed to the long-term security of the United States. Security is the positive side of cost-benefit evaluations of the war; without it balancing the costs, support for the war goes down. And indeed, just 39 percent now say the war was worth fighting.
Doubts about Iraq are inspired not just by casualties, but also by questions about progress there. Fifty-five percent think the United States is not making good progress in terms of restoring civil order; and despite the passage of a new Iraqi constitution, the public only divides evenly, 47 percent to 48 percent, on whether the United States is making progress toward establishing a democratic government there.
On top of the difficulties in Iraq came the troubled federal response to Hurricane Katrina, which incited doubt about Bush's leadership and reliability in a crisis, the central element of his personal support.
Moreover, while never as strong, Bush's rating for empathy -- understanding the problems of people like you -- is down to 34 percent, 10 points lower than Bill Clinton's worst. Empathy is the cartilage that can protect a president in tough times; its perceived absence contributes to Bush's current troubles.
Gasoline prices were rising even before Katrina; immediately after it made landfall they hit a record, $3.07 a gallon, and consumer confidence tanked. While gas prices have eased since, economic complaints continue apace. Bush's 61 percent disapproval for handling the economy is the worst since his father's 72 percent in summer 1992.
While the Harriet Miers short-circuit didn't help, the next, more serious straw was the indictment of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Fifty-two percent in this survey think the case indicates broader problems with ethical wrongdoing within the administration. Few, 13 percent, think Bush himself did anything illegal; nonetheless, as noted, 58 percent now say Bush is not honest and trustworthy, a majority for the first time in his presidency.
The extent of Bush's difficulties are reflected in the damage to the two pillars of his support -- professionally, his rating on handling terrorism; and personally, his reputation as a strong leader.
Handling the nation's response to terrorism -- the issue that got Bush re-elected -- is still his best by a substantial margin. But even here, just 48 percent approve -- fewer than half for the first time, down from 56 percent in late August and down from a career average, up until now, of 69 percent.
Republicans still are with Bush -- 86 percent approve of his work on terrorism -- but that plummets to 39 percent among independents (the quintessential swing group), and barely over two in 10 Democrats.
Similarly, 47 percent of Americans call Bush a strong leader, also fewer than half for the first time, down from a previous career average of 65 percent. Again, it's the political center that's moved -- just 42 percent of independents now call Bush a strong leader; 58 percent think not.