Dec. 19, 2005 — -- The recent elections in Iraq and an improved economic outlook at home have shifted public support in the president's direction, lifting him from career lows in his job performance and personal ratings alike.
The president still faces significant challenges, including majority disapproval of his overall performance, substantial skepticism about the war and roughly 50-50 ratings on his personal honesty and his handling of ethics. Still, each has moved his way.
Overall, 47 percent of Americans in this ABC News/Washington Post poll now approve of George W. Bush's work in office; 52 percent disapprove. While hardly robust, that is up from a career low 39 percent-60 percent in early November to its best in nearly six months.
The president's recent speechmaking on Iraq may have helped him. But public opinion tends to move on the basis of facts on the ground rather than political pronouncements, and the most striking change in this poll is linked to last week's successful elections in Iraq.
Specifically, belief that the United States is making significant progress toward establishing a democratic government in Iraq has jumped dramatically, by 18 points, to 65 percent. A sense of progress in establishing civil order similarly is up, by 16 points, to 60 percent. Each is its best since these questions first were asked in the spring of 2004.
Moreover -- in a view held by majorities across party lines -- 71 percent of Americans believe the Iraqi elections have moved the United States closer to the day U.S. forces can be withdrawn. Fifty-four percent express optimism about Iraq in the year ahead, eight points more than at this time last year. And 56 percent think the United States is winning the war, a recent theme of the president's, up slightly from 51 percent in August.
Other views follow: Approval of Bush's handling of the situation in Iraq is up by 10 points to its best of his second term, 46 percent. (Again, though, more still disapprove, 53 percent.) Forty-six percent now say the war was worth fighting -- still fewer than half, but up seven points. And 54 percent think the war has improved long-term U.S. security, the first majority since June -- a critical change, since this is the war's chief justification.
Even with his gains, the president faces considerable skepticism. Despite his recent speeches, culminating in Sunday night's national address, 60 percent of Americans say he has not done enough to explain the reasons the United States is in Iraq and 59 percent think the administration does not have a clear plan for handling the situation there. (This poll was conducted Thursday through Sunday.) Views on the lack of a clear plan have been steady since spring 2004; what helps the president politically is that even more -- 74 percent -- think the Democrats in Congress don't have a clear plan for Iraq, either.
On the issue of troop deployment, six in 10 continue to oppose setting a deadline for withdrawal of U.S. forces, given the counter-position that doing so would encourage Iraqi insurgents. Support for immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces, never high, is now just 12 percent. But support for decreasing the level of U.S. troops has reached a majority for the first time.
One final result on Iraq shows its overriding importance on the national political scene: Asked, open-ended, for the most important problem for Bush and the Congress to address in the year ahead, 32 percent cite the war in Iraq, placing it far ahead of other mentions (the economy, 15 percent; health care, 11 percent; all others, in the single digits.)
Bush's improvement extends beyond Iraq to the U.S. campaign against terrorism, where he's back in positive territory: Fifty-six percent now approve of his work on terrorism, up eight points. This rating, the cornerstone of Bush's support, had slipped below a majority for the first time last month.
Separately, and with gasoline prices down by 88 cents a gallon from their mid-September peak, there's been an 11-point gain in positive ratings of the economy and a commensurate improvement in Bush's rating for handling it. His ratings are much lower, however, and essentially unchanged, on handling health care (37 percent approve) and immigration (just 33 percent approve, despite his recent focus on the issue).
As attention on the CIA leak investigation has eased, assessments of Bush's own honesty and trustworthiness are up by nine points, albeit just to an even split. He gets about a 50-50 split in handling ethics in government, and about the same on strong leadership -- the latter little changed, and far weaker than his norm.
On another issue under current debate, this poll finds that 56 percent of Americans think the U.S. government has a policy of using torture as part of its campaign against terrorism. Yet 64 percent call this practice unacceptable, about the same as in a May 2004 poll. Thirty-two percent see it as acceptable, rising to a high of 41 percent of Republicans.
At the same time, more Americans, 53 percent -- especially Republicans, 73 percent -- say it would be acceptable for the CIA to hold people suspected of involvement in terrorism in secret prisons in foreign countries where U.S. laws don't apply -- the so-called "black site" prisons that have been reported recently.
Some of Bush's gains come from a rallying of the faithful: His overall approval rating is up most sharply among Republicans: 87 percent approve of his job performance, up nine points (and Republican self-identification is up six points, to 33 percent of the public). Just 15 percent of Democrats approve of Bush's work overall, as do 38 percent of independents, compared with 33 percent of in November.
While highest among Republicans, a sense of progress in Iraq, in terms of establishing civil order and a democratic government, is up very substantially across party lines. A sense that the war was worth fighting is up among Republicans and independents alike (by 10 and nine points, respectively) but flat among Democrats.
The intensity of sentiment on Bush's performance continues to run against him: Forty percent of Americans disapprove "strongly," compared with 29 percent who strongly approve. But again, that's better than in November (a record 47 percent-20 percent split). The gain chiefly is among Republicans; their strong approval of the president is up by 16 points.
The better news for Bush gives just slight aid to his party. While Americans trust the Democrats over the Republicans to handle the nation's main problems by 47 percent-42 percent, that's up slightly for the Republicans, by five points. And the Republicans have improved by seven points in trust to handle Iraq, to a near-even 47 percent-44 percent Democratic-Republican split.
At the same time, the Democrats have slightly increased their advantage, now 47 percent (to the Republicans' 38 percent), in trust to handle ethics in government, and have a 42 percent-34 percent advantage in "standing up to lobbyists and special interest groups."
These shifts haven't much changed the basic equation looking ahead to 2006. By a 10-point margin, 51 percent-41 percent, registered voters say they'd prefer the Democrat over the Republican candidate in their congressional district; it was a similar 52 percent-37 percent in November. (That four-point gain for the Republicans is within sampling tolerances.)
At the same time, given the lightening public mood, overall approval of Congress is up by six points (to 43 percent) from what had been an eight-year low. And 65 percent of Americans approve of their own representative in Congress, up five points, to the likely delight of incumbents everywhere.
This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Dec. 15-18, 2005, among a random national sample of 1,003 adults. The results have a three-point error margin. Fieldwork by TNS of Horsham, Pa.