Poll: Weak Ratings for Bush Ahead of Speech

A weakened George W. Bush faces the nation in his fifth State of the Union address beset by war fatigue, persistent discontent on the economy and other domestic issues, ethics concerns and rising interest in Democratic alternatives in this midterm election year.

Bush's bottom-line job rating -- 42 percent of Americans approve of his work, 56 percent disapprove -- is the worst for a president entering his sixth year in office since Watergate hammered Richard Nixon. And Bush's is not a single-issue problem: More than half disapprove of his work in eight out of nine areas tested in this ABC News/Washington Post poll, from Iraq to immigration to health care.

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

Some views look better for Bush. Nearly two-thirds of Americans say the country's safer now than it was before Sept. 11, 2001, in many ways the fundamental demand of his presidency. Fifty-three percent still believe the war in Iraq has improved long-term U.S. security, its most basic rationale. And the president has won himself some daylight on the issue of warrantless wiretaps; 56 percent now call them justified.

But his challenges are many. Bush's overall approval rating has failed to sustain a slight gain last month from his career lows last fall -- it's 10 points lower than a year ago, on the eve of his second inauguration.

Start of Sixth-Year Approval Ratings
  Job Approval Rating
Bush 42%
Clinton: 60%
Reagan 65%
Nixon 26%
Eisenhower 58%
Truman 45%

On Iraq, 55 percent say the war was not worth fighting and 60 percent disapprove of how Bush is handling it. On the deficit, 64 percent disapprove of his work; on health care 60 percent; on immigration 57 percent; on ethics 56 percent (see separate Jan. 27 analysis on ethics). Six in 10 say the economy's hurting. Six in 10 don't think Bush understands their problems. Fifty-three percent don't see him as honest and trustworthy.

OPPOSITION -- Bush's problems clearly benefit the opposition: Americans -- by a 16-point margin, 51 percent to 35 percent -- now say the country should go in the direction in which the Democrats want to lead, rather than follow Bush. That's a 10-point drop for the president from a year ago, and the Democrats' first head-to-head majority of his presidency.

The Republican Party is feeling the pinch as well. The Democrats lead them by 14 points, 51 percent to 37 percent, in trust to handle the nation's main problems, the first Democratic majority on this question since 1992. And the Democrats hold a 16-point lead in 2006 congressional election preferences, 54 percent to 38 percent among registered voters, their best since 1984.

Independents -- quintessential swing voters -- prefer the Democrats' direction over Bush's by 51 percent to 27 percent, and favor the Democrat over the Republican in congressional races by 54 percent to 31 percent (the latter result is among independents who're registered to vote.).

Whether this shifts many seats in the elections 10 months off is far from assured. Not only are the powers of incumbency immense, there's also no broad anti-incumbency sentiment in the country; indeed 64 percent approve of their own representative's work.

Still, some underlying shifts may give the Republicans pause, perhaps less for 2006 than for 2008 (admittedly a political lifetime away). The Democrats have narrowed the gap as the party with stronger leaders, now trailing by six points versus 16 points last fall. They lead by 16 points as the party with "better ideas." And they've held or improved their advantage over the Republicans in public trust to handle issues as disparate as the economy (now an 18-point Democratic lead), Iraq and lobbying reform.

Handling the nation's response to terrorism is still the Republicans' best issue -- both Bush's and his party's -- albeit by far less of a margin than in the past: Fifty-two percent now approve of Bush's work on terrorism (pale compared with his career-average 68 percent) and the Republicans hold a scant five-point lead over the Democrats in trust to handle it (down from a peak 36-point lead three years ago).

Even with these weaker assessments, dealing with terrorism remains the wellspring of the president's support (and it's clearly the issue that got him re-elected). When he addresses the nation Tuesday night -- and when his party goes to the people in November -- it's certain to be central to their message.

ISSUES -- It helps Bush and his party that terrorism continues to be one of the top items on the public's agenda; 59 percent say it should be one of the highest priorities for Bush and Congress, putting it alongside the situation in Iraq, cited by 60 percent.

There are vast partisan differences in those two top issue choices: Seventy-nine percent of Republicans call terrorism a "highest priority" issue; that falls to about half of independents and Democrats alike (53 percent and 49 percent, respectively). And 70 percent of Republicans call Iraq top priority, compared with 51 percent of Democrats.

Rated the Highest Priority
  All Dems. Ind. Repub.
Iraq 60% 51% 63% 70%
Terrorism 59% 49% 53% 79%
Health care 53% 58% 57% 43
Economy 52% 54% 54% 44%
Education 47% 53% 47% 38%
Less govt. spending 43% 41% 48% 41%
Social Security 41% 50% 41% 31%
Budget deficit 38% 42% 40% 32%
Disaster Prep. 36% 41% 35% 30%
Rx for elderly 32% 39% 34% 18%
Immigration 27% 22% 27% 34%
Taxes 27% 32% 28% 19%
Global Warming 26% 36% 30% 10%
Lobbying Reform 16% 17% 18% 13%

Democrats, by contrast, are much more likely than Republicans to give top-priority mention to domestic issues such as Social Security, education, health care and prescription drug benefits. Lobbying reform, it's worth noting, comes out last on the list. That doesn't mean it's unimportant, just not a "highest" priority, probably because people are less apt to see it as impacting them directly.

IRAQ -- In one notable change, approval of Bush's performance on Iraq has dropped back after a short-lived gain following the recent elections there. His approval rating went from 36 percent before the mid-December elections to 46 percent immediately afterward; now it's back down to 39 percent. The change came mainly among Republicans; their approval of Bush's handling of Iraq is down 11 points in this poll.

NSA -- A better result for Bush, noted above, is the apparent lack of traction for critics of the warrantless NSA wiretaps. A clear majority now says such wiretaps are acceptable, 56 percent, compared with 43 percent who call them unacceptable. That compares with a closer 51 percent to 47 percent split earlier this month.

In what may be a related result, there's also been an advance, albeit just to 50 percent, in the number of Americans who express confidence in the government's ability to prevent future terrorist attacks. This confidence is far higher among Republicans (71 percent) than it is among either independents or Democrats (45 percent and 40 percent, respectively.)

Still, the change on NSA wiretaps came equally among Republicans and independents; both now are eight points more likely to call such wiretaps acceptable. It's a small gain for Bush and his party -- but one of the few they have cause to celebrate.


This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Jan. 23-26, 2006, among a random national sample of 1,002 adults. The results have a three-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.

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