The corrosive effects of the war in Iraq and a growing disconnect on political priorities have pushed George W. Bush's performance ratings -- notably on terrorism -- to among the worst of his career, casting a pall over his second term and potentially over his party's prospects ahead.
For the first time, most Americans, 55 percent, say Bush has done more to divide than to unite the country. A career-high 52 percent disapprove of his job performance overall, and, in another first, a bare majority rates him unfavorably on a personal level. Most differ with him on issues ranging from the economy and Social Security to stem-cell research and nuclear power.
Iraq is a major thorn. With discontent over U.S. casualties at a new peak, a record 58 percent say the war there was not worth fighting. Nearly two-thirds think the United States has gotten bogged down in Iraq, up 11 points since March. Forty-five percent go so far as to foresee the equivalent of another Vietnam.
Fifty-two percent, the first majority to say so, think the Iraq war has failed to improve the long-term security of the United States, its fundamental rationale. As an extension -- and perhaps most hazardously in political terms -- approval of Bush's handling of terrorism, the base of his support, has lost 11 points since January to match its low, 50 percent in June 2004 when it was pressured both by the presidential campaign and the kidnapping and slaying of American Paul Johnson in Saudi Arabia.
All these underscore a broad sense of lost promise for the president: In January, 55 percent of Americans expected Bush to do a better job in his second term than in his first. Today, vastly fewer, 30 percent, say in fact he's doing so. And even though they remain staunchly supportive, the letdown in expectations is biggest in Bush's own back yard, among Republicans.
Parties and Politics
These views are accompanied by a sense of alienation not just from the president but from both parties in Washington. Disapproval of Congress, at 54 percent, is its highest in more than six years, and six in 10 Americans say Bush and the Republicans, who control both Houses, are not making good progress in solving the nation's problems.
About as many also say neither Bush nor the Republicans are concentrating on what's important to them personally. And the Democrats in Congress barely fare better: Fifty-three percent say they're not concentrating on the right issues either.
On balance, Americans now slightly favor the Democrats over the Republicans, by 46 percent-41 percent, in trust to deal with the country's problems, the first Democratic advantage in this question, however slight, in ABC/Post polls since 9/11. Nonetheless, the Democrats seem to have capitalized only marginally at best on the current discontent. Fifty-six percent of Americans disapprove of the job performance of both parties in Congress, and both have seen their basic favorability ratings slide to about the 50-50 mark.
The impact on the still far-off 2006 mid-term elections is hardly clear. Whatever their views of Congress, Bush and the political parties, 61 percent approve of the way their own representative in Congress is handling his or her job. That is well above the low of 49 percent shortly before the earth-shaking midterms of 1994.
Current sentiment may give the Democrats an opportunity, but it's one they haven't yet seized to any notable extent. For Republican candidates, meanwhile, these results suggest the safest course may be at a respectful distance from the president.
Among specific domestic issues, Social Security may best underscore Bush's difficulties. In terms of public attitudes, his assiduous sales campaign has come to naught: Sixty-two percent disapprove of his work on Social Security.
Support for a stock-market option, once the most attractive component of Bush's proposals, is stuck at about 50-50. And if establishing a stock-market option means reducing the growth of guaranteed benefits, support falls steeply, to just 27 percent.
Moreover, Americans perceive pain, but without gain, from the president's plans. Fifty-six percent think Bush's proposals would decrease the total amount of retirement income most seniors receive. Yet even more, 63 percent, do not believe the plan would improve the long-term financial stability of Social Security.
Young adults are more receptive than others to Bush's proposals; in particular, among those under 30 years old, 71 percent like the idea of a stock-market option. But even in this group, support falls to 40 percent if establishing a stock-market option required reducing the rate of growth in guaranteed benefits. And 57 percent of young adults think Bush's proposals would not improve the system's long-term finances.
Handling the retirement system isn't the only domestic issue on which Bush has trouble. Ratings of the economy have grown a bit less sour -- 44 percent positive, up seven points from April -- and most people are optimistic about the economy in the year ahead. Yet a majority, 58 percent, disapproves of how Bush is handling it, one point from his career worst in March 2004.
Most, 55 percent, also disapprove of Bush's handling of the issue of stem-cell research, an issue he has chosen to highlight recently. And on energy policy, the public divides on allowing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- and by 64 percent-34 percent broadly oppose building new nuclear power plants. That represents a drop in support for more nuclear plants since 2001, contrary to Bush's efforts to promote their construction.
Another result underscores the conundrum Bush faces as 9/11 grows more distant: His success in preventing another terrorist attack on U.S. soil tends to move the issue down as a public priority. Just 12 percent call it the top issue facing the country, compared with 30 percent who cite the economy; 24 percent, Iraq; 16 percent, health care; and 13 percent, Social Security.
In what's likely a related result, Americans now divide, 50 percent-46 percent, on whether, as it conducts the war on terrorism, the United States is or is not doing enough to protect the rights of American citizens. In 2002 and 2003 polls, by contrast, anywhere from 61 percent to 74 percent said it was doing enough.
Previous polling has indicated that Americans are willing to sacrifice some rights and privacy in times of national crisis, but then tend to demand an end to any such intrusions as the crisis passes. To the extent that's beginning to occur, it opens the door for further skepticism about administration policy.
In a basic measure of personal popularity, 48 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of Bush overall, 51 percent unfavorable, the first time he's gotten a majority unfavorable rating, however slightly.
Of two other political figures tested, Hillary Rodham Clinton has a rating of 51 percent-46 percent, favorable to unfavorable, marginally better than Bush's, but hardly powerful. Better overall is Sen. John McCain, with 57 percent favorable, 32 percent unfavorable. McCain, a Republican, and Clinton, a Democrat, are possible candidates for president in 2008.
McCain's favorability crosses ideological and party lines in a way Bush's and Clinton's do not – a good profile for a general election campaign, but not necessarily for winning primaries. Indeed, reflecting his 2000 campaign difficulties, McCain is weaker among conservatives (48 percent favorable) than among moderates or liberals (63 percent and 62 percent, respectively), and conservatives account for a disproportionate share of Republican primary voters. Clinton, by contrast, is much more popular among liberals (75 percent favorable) than among moderates (55 percent) or conservatives (31 percent).
Roughly equal numbers of Americans in this survey identify themselves as Republicans (31 percent) and Democrats (30 percent). These groups very sharply differ on many of these issues; it's the center -- independents -- where some of Bush's negatives turn into majorities.
Overall, for instance, while 84 percent of Republicans approve of Bush's performance, just 38 percent of independents (and 21 percent of Democrats) agree. And intensity is greater on the negative side: Among all Americans, 38 percent disapprove "strongly" of Bush's performance, compared with 27 percent who approve strongly.
Ideology tells a similar story: Bush has 68 percent approval from conservatives, but that drops to 44 percent among moderates, and further among liberals, to 24 percent.
There are other gaps, including a huge regional difference: Sixty percent of Southerners approve of Bush's work, compared with 32 percent in the Northeast, and 44 percent in the Midwest and West alike.
On terrorism, the decline in Bush's ratings since April occurred among men (approval down 12 points) and non-whites (down 20 points). It's also fallen twice as far among independents, down 14 points, as among Democrats or Republicans.
As noted, the biggest letdown in expectations of Bush's second-term performance has been among Republicans: In January, 82 percent thought he'd do a better job; today, 44 percent say he is – 38 points fewer. The letdown is 24 points among independents, and 17 points among Democrats, who had particularly low expectations.
Another result describes the increasing narrowness of Bush's support. The only population groups in which majorities say he's concentrating on issues that are important to them personally are Republicans, evangelical white Protestants, conservatives and better-off Americans, those with household incomes of $75,000 a year or more.
This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone June 2-5, 2005, 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.