POLL: A New Low in Approval Starts Bush's Final Year

Beset by growing economic concerns on top of the long unpopular war in Iraq, President Bush starts the last year of his presidency with the worst approval rating of his career.

Just 32 percent of Americans now approve of the way Bush is handling his job, while 66 percent disapprove. Bush's work on the economy has likewise reached a new low. And he shows no gain on Iraq; despite reduced violence there, 64 percent say the war was not worth fighting, 2 points from its high.

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Given these complaints, 77 percent in this ABC News/Washington Post poll say the country is headed off on the wrong track -- the most since the federal government shut down in a deeply unpopular budget battle in early 1996.

Three post-World War II presidents have gone lower than Bush in overall approval -- Jimmy Carter (28 percent), Richard Nixon (24 percent) and Harry Truman (22 percent). But after three straight years in the doghouse, Bush is just two months away from Truman's record of 38 months without majority approval -- far beyond any other.

Bush's ratings have stayed remarkably stable lately; he received between 33 and 36 percent approval in nine ABC/Post polls in 2007. The change in this poll, while not statistically significant, marks his first foray below one-third approval.

Intensity of sentiment, moreover, remains very heavily against the president. Fifty-one percent strongly disapprove of his work overall, while just 16 percent strongly approve -- strongly negative by better than a 3-1 ratio.

RIDE -- It's been a remarkably bumpy ride. Bush has been so low for so long it can be hard to remember that he also holds the highest approval rating on record for any president in ABC/Post polls, or Gallup polls before them, back to 1938.

That came Oct. 9, 2001, as the nation rallied together after 9/11. Bush, who'd been at 55 percent approval just before the attacks, soared to 92 percent, surpassing his father's 90 percent at the time of the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

His time in the stratosphere has boosted Bush's overall average since taking office, now 54 percent approval -- a mid-range rating, around those of Lyndon Johnson (56 percent) and Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, both 57 percent.

ECONOMY -- Economic trouble almost always damages an incumbent president, and it's been brewing for months. Consumer confidence as measured weekly by ABC News grew worse in each quarter of 2007. In November 69 percent of Americans said a recession was at least somewhat likely in the next year. And in this poll the economy has surpassed the Iraq War as the most important issue to voters in the 2008 presidential campaign.

Just 28 percent now approve of how Bush is handling the economy, down 6 points in the last month and down from 40 percent in June, before the latest economic shock -- the housing market crisis and resulting credit crunch -- took hold.

But it's not the housing or credit markets but other economic concerns that Americans cite as their families' main economic problems: Health care costs lead that parade, cited by 24 percent; followed by rising prices overall, 23 percent; the price of gasoline, 16 percent; and taxes, 12 percent. There are plenty of economic irritants to go around.

There are differences among groups. Americans older than 50 are more apt to complain about health care costs; young adults, about gas prices. And better-off Americans and Republicans are much more apt than those less-well-off, or Democrats, to call taxes their top economic problem.

GETTING AHEAD? -- All told, just 21 percent say they're "getting ahead" financially, while 17 percent say they're falling behind (actually a bit fewer than the 23 percent who say so in fall 2006). Most, six in 10, say they're earning just enough to maintain their standard of living.

In a country where getting ahead is the American dream, just holding steady doesn't do it. Among those who are getting ahead financially, 60 percent say the country is headed in the wrong direction (they have other concerns, including the war). Among those who are just maintaining, far more, 79 percent, say the country's going the wrong way. And among those falling behind, "wrong direction" peaks at 89 percent.

There's a similar relationship with Bush's approval rating -- 42 percent among people who are getting ahead, 32 percent among those who are holding steady, just 22 percent among those falling behind. However, these economic standings are tied up with other factors -- including partisanship -- and they don't independently predict Bush's ratings.

IRAQ -- The war in Iraq is another story; views on the war do predict Bush's ratings, and those views are broadly negative. Just 30 percent approve of how he's handling it, 2 points from his low, and again strong disapprovers outnumber strong approvers by 3-1. As noted, nearly two-thirds say the war was not worth fighting (it's been a majority continuously since December 2004), and 54 percent remain skeptical the U.S. is making significant progress restoring civil order there.

Among war supporters, 69 percent approve of Bush's work in office, and a comparatively low 52 percent say the country's headed down the wrong track. Among those who disapprove of the war, Bush's approval rating is 12 percent; "wrong track," 91 percent.

The effect of an unpopular war on presidential approval has been seen before. Johnson's approval dropped year-to-year as the nation became enmeshed in Vietnam, from 66 percent in 1965 to 51 percent in 1966 and 42 percent in 1968, when he chose not to run for re-election. Bush's approval has followed a similar path -- just a longer one.

PARTY -- There's been political damage beyond the president; his party has suffered as well. After decades of gradual growth, the Republican Party finally achieved parity with the Democrats in 2003, when, on average across the year, precisely equal numbers of Americans identified themselves with either party -- 31 percent Democrats, 31 percent Republicans (with the rest independents).

But that changed after 2003 -- the year the United States invaded Iraq. Since then Republican self-identification has moved back down, to an average of 25 percent across 2007 -- its lowest yearlong average since 1984.

GROUPS -- Bush is at career lows in approval in three groups as well as overall -- among liberals (9 percent approve of his work), moderates (24 percent) and independents -- the center of American politics -- among whom just 25 percent approve.

His ratings are far higher among his core supporters, Republicans and conservatives, with 68 percent and 55 percent approval, respectively. But even those are well below his career averages in these groups, 86 percent and 71 percent. Beyond liberals, disapproval of Bush peaks among Democrats, African-Americans and strong opponents of the Iraq war.

The president's low overall ratings fuel one other result, perhaps an obvious one: Seventy-nine percent of Americans say his successor should take the nation in a different direction.

METHODOLOGY -- This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Jan. 9-12, 2008, among a random national sample of 1,130 adults, including an oversample of African-Americans for a total of 202 black respondents (weighted back to their correct share of the national population). The results have a 3-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.

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