Poll: Bush Approval at Career Low

ByAnalysis by GARY LANGER

Aug. 30, 2005 — -- George W. Bush's job approval rating slipped to a career low 45 percent in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, damaged both by discontent with the war in Iraq and broad unhappiness with the price of gasoline at home.

Views on Iraq, while stable, are not good: Fifty-three percent of Americans say the war was not worth fighting, 57 percent disapprove of the way Bush is handling it and 68 percent call the level of U.S. casualties unacceptable. The public only divides, 49-49 percent, on whether the war has improved long-term U.S. security, its basic rationale.

At home, opinions on gasoline prices are even more dire. Just 22 percent approve of Bush's work on the problem, while a whopping 73 percent disapprove. Two-thirds say gas prices are causing them financial hardship -- back up after a dip last week -- and six in 10 think the Bush administration could take measures to cut the price of gas.

That view seems to run contrary to Bush's comment Monday: "I wish I could snap my fingers and lower the price of gasoline for you. The markets don't work that way. I'd be snappin' if I could do it."

Views on Iraq, while negative, have been at least as sour in the past as they are now. Disapproval of Bush's handling of the war has been essentially steady since December, and a majority hasn't approved since January 2004. Similarly, consistent majorities since December 2004 have said the war was not worth fighting, and since July 2003 have called the level of casualties unacceptable.

In another bottom-line view, a bare majority, 51 percent, says the United States is winning the war in Iraq -- hardly an expression of broad confidence, albeit more than the 38 percent who say the United States is losing the war. Eight percent call it a draw.

Separately, in a result that could embolden Bush's critics, a majority of Americans -- including more than three-quarters of Democrats and nearly six in 10 independents -- say the Democrats in Congress have not gone far enough in opposing the war, or, for that matter, in opposing Bush's policies more generally.

Bush's overall rating, while a new low, also is not much worse than it's been. Forty-five percent approve of his work in office, compared with a previous low of 47 percent; 53 percent disapprove, a scant one point more than the previous high.

A better result for Bush is a little gain in ratings of his handling of terrorism more broadly, the primary underpinning of his popularity. Fifty-six percent approve, up from 50 percent in early June, which tied the post-9/11 low.

Intensity of sentiment, however, remains against Bush. People who "strongly" disapprove of his work in office overall outnumber strong approvers by 14 points, 41 percent to 27 percent. But this has been steady, too, since spring.

Indeed, it may come as a surprise that Bush hasn't fared worse despite the difficult August -- suggesting that views on his presidency overall, and Iraq in particular, are by now firmly rooted and slow to move. U.S. military fatalities in Iraq have averaged about three a day in August, making it among the deadliest months since the war began. And anti-war protester Cindy Sheehan has been a persistent voice opposing the president for the last three weeks.

Sheehan's received broad exposure -- three-quarters of Americans have heard or read about her -- and gets majority sympathy; 53 percent support what she's doing and 52 percent think Bush should meet with her again, as she's requested. Her supporters are very predominantly those who, like her, oppose the war.

All the same, Sheehan does not appear to have changed the basic equation -- or many minds. Nearly eight in 10 Americans say she hasn't changed their view of the war; among the rest, about as many say they're more likely to support the war because of Sheehan as say they're more likely to oppose it, 10 percent vs. nine percent, respectively.

Neither has Sheehan ratcheted up emotional responses to the Bush administration's work on the war. Fifty-three percent are dissatisfied, about the same as in late June. That includes 27 percent who are "angry" about it, again quite similar to the level of anger two months ago, pre-Sheehan.

Sheehan, whose son was killed while serving in Iraq, also raises the question of the views of military families. Ten percent in this survey say they or a member of their household are serving in the military, either on active duty or in the reserves. In general, the views these people hold on the war are very similar to those of people in non-military households.

Similarly, basic views of Sheehan are no different among people in military families than in non-military households -- a little more than half in both groups support her, and about half in both groups think Bush should meet with her.

Still, Sheehan looks to have touched more of a nerve in military households; such people are more apt to say she's affected their opinions, about equally in both directions. Twenty-two percent say she's made them more apt to support the war, 17 percent say she's made them more apt to oppose it. That compares to eight and nine percent, respectively, in non-military households.

Views on what to do now in Iraq are in some ways conflicted. On one hand, the number of Americans who say U.S. forces should remain until civil order is restored, even if that means sustaining continued casualties, has slipped slightly to 54 percent, compared with 57 to 58 percent the past year. That likely reflects the obvious difficulties that restoring civil order there entails.

At the same time, the public continues to divide about evenly on whether the United States is or is not making significant progress restoring order in Iraq -- no change there. And support for increasing the number of U.S. forces actually has increased slightly, albeit just to 21 percent, up from 15 or 16 percent in March and June polls.

About twice as many, 41 percent, say U.S. troop levels should be decreased. But that remains under a majority, and many fewer -- 13 percent -- call for an immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces in Iraq. That's been steady since spring. And even among people who strongly oppose the war, fewer than three in 10 want a complete, immediate withdrawal.

Indeed, given pro and con arguments (avoiding further casualties vs. encouraging anti-government insurgents), Americans by a substantial 20-point margin, 59 to 39 percent, oppose setting a deadline for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq. (Those who favor a deadline divide about evenly on whether the end of 2006, as suggested by Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., is about right, or too late.)

While Bush's 45-percent approval rating is weak -- majority disapproval is never a good thing -- it's by no means out of the ordinary. Among the more-popular recent presidents, Bill Clinton saw lows of 43 percent in the summer of 1993 and 44 percent in 1994, and Ronald Reagan hit 42 percent in early 1983 and 44 percent in early 1987. (The latter was Iran-Contra inspired; the others, largely economic.)

But the mid- to low-40s are kind of a break point; presidents who've gone lower are those who tend to be remembered as less popular. Bush's father, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, all one-termers, bottomed out at 33, 28 and 37 percent, respectively. Richard Nixon saw a scandal-induced 23 percent in a Gallup poll in January 1974.

What seem to be different are the factors driving majority disapproval of Bush -- not the more usual culprits of the economy or scandal, but, at least in good measure, a less-than-popular war (although gas prices certainly are not helping). The possible parallel there is with Lyndon B. Johnson, who spent most of 1968 in the low 40s, bottoming out at 35 percent approval that August. (In Gallup polling in the summer of '68, 53 percent called the Vietnam War a mistake, as many as now view the Iraq war critically.)

Even though Bush's ratings on Iraq haven't worsened, the war has gained some ground on the public's agenda: Twenty-nine percent call it the highest priority for Bush and Congress, compared with 26 percent who cite the economy. That puts Iraq numerically (albeit not significantly) ahead of the economy for the first time this year; mentions of Iraq have gained seven points since spring, while the economy's lost six. Seventeen percent mention terrorism as the top priority, up from 12 percent in April.

Handling terrorism is the only issue of seven tested in this poll on which Bush gets majority approval. Still, some others also show gains. While 52 percent disapprove of his work on Social Security, that's down from 62 percent in early June; the 40 percent who now approve is the most since April 2004. It may have helped that there's been less focus lately on Bush's less-than-popular Social Security reform plan.

Fifty-four percent disapprove of Bush's work on the economy; this peaked at 59 percent in March 2004. Fifty-seven percent disapprove of his work on immigration, not good, but essentially stable since January 2004. On Bush's approach to abortion, of interest given his nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court, the public divides evenly, 44-44 percent. As noted, Bush's rating on gas prices is particularly severe.

Beyond job performance, Bush has difficulty on personal empathy as well. Forty percent of Americans think he understands the problems of people like them; 59 percent say he doesn't. But this, too, has been quite stable, in this case since early 2004.

In only a few pro-Bush groups do majorities (and not always big majorities) say he understands their problems -- 76 percent of Republicans, 55 percent of conservatives, 52 percent of evangelical white Protestants and 51 percent of people with household incomes over $75,000.

Bush can take some solace, though, in ratings of Congress: Just 37 percent of Americans approve of its work, while 59 percent disapprove -- the institution's worst rating in ABC/Post polls since October 1997.

The difference is that Republicans, while remaining behind Bush (87 percent approve of his work) are much less enamored of the Republican-controlled Congress; 49 percent approve, while 48 percent disapprove. And Democrats and independents disapprove of Congress lopsidedly.

In addition to the customary partisanship in many of these views, there's a notable difference between the sexes. Compared with men, women are more apt to oppose the Iraq war and less apt to say it's improved U.S. security. They're 17 points more likely to favor setting a deadline for withdrawal, and 16 points less apt to say the United States is winning the war. And they're 10 points more apt to support Cindy Sheehan.

Much of this reflects the fact that women are more likely than men to be Democrats. But not all of it: Republican women are 17 points more apt than Republican men to call the level of casualties unacceptable and 11 points more likely to favor withdrawing from Iraq even if civil order is not restored.

This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Aug. 25-28, 2005, among a random national sample of 1,006 adults. The results have a three-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS Intersearch of Horsham, Pa.

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