Poll: Bush Ratings Tepid, Expectations Mixed

President Bush approaches his second inauguration with a comparatively weak job approval rating, subdued expectations for his performance in office and the daunting challenge of a single issue with the potential to make or break his second term: Iraq.

While the president has signaled an intention to focus on selected domestic issues, it's Iraq that dominates public concern. Sixty-one percent give it a "highest priority" rating for Bush and the Congress to address, easily the most among a dozen issues tested in this ABC News/Washington Post poll. Thirty-five percent, by contrast, give that level of priority to Social Security, and far fewer still to either immigration issues or tort reform.

Reflecting their political mood -- hardly celebratory -- Americans even express doubt about the president's inaugural plans, saying by more than a 2-1 margin, 66 percent-32 percent, that because the country is at war they'd prefer a smaller and more subdued inauguration to the $40 million bash (largely privately funded) the administration plans this week.

Overall Approval Ratings Tepid

Bush's overall job approval rating stands at 52 percent, about its average across election-year 2004 and well below his career average, 64 percent. Perhaps more tellingly, of the seven presidents elected to a second term in the last 56 years, only one -- Richard Nixon -- received as tepid an approval rating on the eve of his second inauguration. Indeed Bush's rating is 13 points below the pre-inaugural average for the last six second-termers.

Pre-Inaugural Approval Ratings - Second Term

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

Opportunities for Bush

There are opportunities for Bush in public attitudes: More than half the public supports changes he's proposed in Social Security, immigration and tort reform. His approval rating for handling terrorism -- the wellspring of his support -- has rebounded, gaining eight points since last month. And, critically for any incumbent, economic discontent has eased, with a 13-point drop since mid-2003 in the number of Americans who give it a top priority.

There are clear challenges for Bush as well, including an advantage for the Democrats in trust to handle Social Security, and continued weak ratings for the president on this and a range of other domestic issues. But there also are challenges for the Democrats in Congress: The public by 45 percent-39 percent says the country should go in Bush's direction rather than theirs; and by a huge 69 percent-28 percent says the Democrats should compromise with Bush on major issues rather than simply blocking him.

In terms of the double-edged sword of expectations, 55 percent expect Bush to do a better job in his second term than in his first, about the same as it was for Bill Clinton on the eve of his second inauguration. But 29 percent expect Bush to do a worse job in his second term -- 10 points higher than it was for Clinton.

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