Barely one-third of Americans expect the United States to win the war in Iraq, a bleak assessment that's chasing the Bush administration into ever-deeper political disfavor.
As he struggles to find a new course, George W. Bush faces a skeptical and war-weary public: Not only do a record 70 percent disapprove of his handling of the situation in Iraq, but two-thirds also think that -- despite last week's prodding by the Iraq Study Group and his current deliberations -- that the president is unwilling to change his war policies.
Sixty-one percent now say the war was not worth fighting, a number that tops six in 10 for only the third time since the ABC News/Washington Post polls began. Driven down by that discontent, Bush's overall job approval rating stands at just 36 percent, while 62 percent disapprove -- the second-worst rating of his career and this time without soaring gasoline prices to blame.
The intensity of these negative sentiments is remarkable: A record 57 percent "strongly" disapprove of Bush's handling of Iraq, 50 percent strongly feel the war was not worth fighting and a record 49 percent strongly disapprove of his job performance overall, compared with just 18 percent who strongly approve. The strong disapproval is 16 points worse than Bill Clinton's worst, a number the former president hit just before the 1994 midterm elections. It is 15 points worse than George Bush Sr.'s worst, recorded during the economic discontent of 1992.
A year ago, 60 percent of Americans thought the United States ultimately would win the war in Iraq. Today, just 34 percent think so, a dive in confidence. Forty-six percent instead now expect to lose the war, and 11 percent expect a draw.
Views on the current situation, as opposed to expectations, are similar: Just 34 percent think the United States is winning, down 22 points from a year ago. Most instead think the country is outright losing (52 percent) or fighting to a draw (9 percent).
These views heavily impact broader sentiment. People who expect the United States to win the war are much more likely to say it's worth fighting, to approve of how Bush is handling it, and to approve of his job performance overall, a result that's significant even when controlled for political partisanship.
The Iraq Study Group's proposals offer a glimmer of light -- its key elements are broadly popular. So does the Democrats' newly won control of Congress, itself a consequence of unhappiness with the war. Americans by a wide margin, 56 percent to 32 percent, trust the Democrats more than Bush to handle Iraq policy. Two years ago, those numbers were reversed. A 20-point Bush advantage in trust on Iraq after the 2004 election is now a 24-point deficit.
Part of Bush's problem in Iraq is apparently on the ground: Just three in 10 Americans now say the United States is making significant progress restoring civil order there, down 17 points since June. Eighty-six percent say Iraq either is in a civil war or close to it.
Another of the administration's problems is its own credibility: 52 percent think it intentionally misled the American public in making the case for war. Indeed, 53 percent favor congressional hearings into how the administration handled prewar intelligence and war planning. About as many favor hearings into surveillance and the treatment of prisoners in the broader U.S. campaign against terrorism.
Yet, given demands for a solution, there's danger for the Democrats as well. Iraq is far atop the public's agenda. Forty-four percent volunteer it as the single most important problem for Bush and the Congress to handle, up a dozen points from a year ago and far outstripping all other issues. But while 72 percent say Bush lacks a clear plan on Iraq (a record, up 11 points from September), 65 percent say the Democrats don't have one, either.
Enter the Iraq Study Group. General responses to its proposals are cautious. Forty-six percent support them overall (32 percent are withholding judgment), while just 32 percent say the report offers a clear plan (28 percent wait-and-see). But specific, central elements of its proposals win broad majority support:
Seventy-nine percent favor shifting from primarily a combat mission in Iraq to primarily a mission to support and train the Iraqi Army.
Seventy-four percent support reducing military and financial support for the Iraqi government if it fails to make progress establishing civil order.
Sixty-nine percent support withdrawing almost all U.S. combat forces by early 2008, while retaining military training forces (among those who oppose this timetable, just over half do so because they want to see faster withdrawal).
Majorities support including direct U.S. talks with Iran (57 percent) and Syria (58 percent) as part of a regional dialogue, even though the United States has identified those countries as sponsors of terrorism.
Notably, these ISG proposals hold bipartisan support in what has been a heavily partisan debate. Eighty-five percent of Republicans favor switching to a training mission, as do more than three-quarters of independents and Democrats. Sixty-five percent of Republicans favor substantial withdrawal by early 2008, as do as many independents and slightly more Democrats. More than seven in 10 Americans across partisan lines support performance-based aid for Iraq. Majorities, likewise, support talks with Iran and Syria.
Whether the ISG notion will work is more debatable: Just 41 percent of Americans think the United States is making significant progress in training and equipping the Iraqi army to be an effective force. And the public divides about evenly in their confidence that Iraqis themselves ultimately will be able to defeat the insurgents in their country.
For all the public's discontent with the war, relatively few Americans call for immediate withdrawal from Iraq. At the same time, the level of commitment to pacify the country before pulling out has diminished, potentially a significant demarcation in public sentiment on ultimately withdrawing U.S. forces.
For the first time in ABC/Post polls, just under half of Americans (48 percent) now say the United States should remain in Iraq until civil order is restored, even if that means sustaining continued U.S. casualties. Until now, the majority had expressed that "broke-it/bought-it" sentiment, from a high of 72 percent in summer 2003 to a low of 52 percent a year ago.
This view, like most on Iraq, reverts to heavy partisanship. Seventy-two percent of Republicans want to stay until order is restored, a number that drops to 49 percent of independents, and further to just 29 percent of Democrats.
More generally, while 52 percent of Americans favor decreasing U.S. forces in Iraq, that includes only 15 percent who want them all withdrawn immediately – about the same number as those who favor the opposite tack of increasing the deployment. One-quarter say the current deployment should remain about the same. These numbers have been steady lately.
War and Approval
The root cause of Bush's woes is unmistakable -- his overall approval rating has moved in tandem with views of whether the war has been worth fighting. The two correlate almost perfectly, at .94, where 1 is an exact match.
The same sort of drop in approval occurred in Lyndon B. Johnson's presidency. His year-to-year decline in popularity as the country became enmeshed in Vietnam almost precisely matches Bush's year-to-year decline during the Iraq war. The parallels are striking.
Support for the war is down to Bush's base: Republicans, conservatives and evangelical white Protestants are the only groups in which majorities say the war is worth fighting. And in these groups, as in all others, majorities call the level of U.S. casualties unacceptable (77 percent overall say so, a new high, albeit, as in several other cases, by a single point).
While the ISG's proposals get bipartisan support, most other views are marked by the extreme partisanship of recent years. In one striking example, 75 percent of Democrats and 58 percent of independents think the administration intentionally misled the public on Iraq; 82 percent of Republicans think not.
Similarly, 69 percent of Republicans say the Iraq war was worth fighting; 65 percent of independents and 81 percent of Democrats say not. Bush retains a 77-percent overall job approval within his party, a number that plummets to 30 percent among independents and 12 percent among Democrats.
But all is not well even in Bush's base. His approval rating from Republicans specifically on his handling of Iraq has dropped from 77 percent in October to 65 percent now -- a single point off its low in May. And four in 10 Republicans think he's not willing enough to change course on Iraq. That soars to seven in 10 among independents, and among Democrats, even higher.
This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Dec.7-11, 2006, among a random national sample of 1,005 adults. The results have a 3-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.