Nov. 3, 2005 — -- An increasingly unpopular war, an ethics cloud, and broad economic discontent have pushed public opinion of the Bush administration from bad to worse, infecting not only the president's ratings on political issues but his personal credentials for honesty and leadership as well.
George W. Bush's approval ratings for handling his job, Iraq, terrorism and the economy are all at career-lows. Sixty percent of Americans disapprove of his work in office overall, a level of discontent unseen since recession chased his father from office.
With an indictment in the White House, just 40 percent call Bush honest and trustworthy -- fewer than half for the first time -- and 67 percent rate his handling of ethics in government negatively. Fewer than half call him a strong leader, another first. Two-thirds say he doesn't understand their problems, and nearly six in 10 say he doesn't share their values -- again career-worst personal ratings on these attributes.
On Iraq, a new high -- 55 percent -- say the Bush administration intentionally misled the American public in making its case for war, up 12 points from last spring. Sixty percent say the war was not worth fighting, up seven points just since August to another high.
And here at home, with gasoline at $2.48 a gallon (even if down from recent price peaks), 65 percent say the economy is in bad shape, and 68 percent say the nation is on the "wrong track," the most since 1996. The main reasons given: the economy, Iraq and Bush himself.
Adding to his woes, 59 percent in this ABC News/Washington Post poll say Bush's right hand man, Karl Rove, should resign.
A striking feature of the president's predicament is the intensity of sentiment against him. Just 20 percent of Americans "strongly" approve of his work in office, the fewest of his career; more than twice as many, 47 percent, strongly disapprove, the most yet seen.
Even in his own party, just under half of Republicans, 49 percent, now strongly approve of Bush's job performance; it was 71 percent at the start of the year -- a huge 22-point fall in home-crowd intensity. And it's a similar story among conservatives, another core Bush group: Their strong approval has fallen 14 points this year, to 38 percent.
In another measure of intensity, 25 percent of Americans say they're "angry" with the Bush administration, three times as many as are "pleased" with it.
Intensity follows through on views of the Iraq war: In still another first, nearly twice as many Americans now feel strongly that the war not worth fighting as those who feel strongly it was, 48 percent versus 25 percent.
Bush has been pushed well below roughly 50-50 approval -- where he'd lingered since early 2004 -- by a perfect storm of political setbacks.
First was Iraq, where U.S. military casualties spiked in August, then spiked again in October; they're the fourth and fifth highest-casualty months of the 33-month war. Total U.S. military casualties hit 2,000 last week.
In this poll, 73 percent of Americans call the level of U.S. military casualties in Iraq "unacceptable," and fewer than half, 46 percent, think the war has contributed to the long-term security of the United States. Security is the positive side of cost-benefit evaluations of the war; without it balancing the costs, support for the war goes down. And indeed, just 39 percent now say the war was worth fighting.
Doubts about Iraq are inspired not just by casualties, but also by questions about progress there. Fifty-five percent think the United States is not making good progress in terms of restoring civil order; and despite the passage of a new Iraqi constitution, the public only divides evenly, 47 percent to 48 percent, on whether the United States is making progress toward establishing a democratic government there.
On top of the difficulties in Iraq came the troubled federal response to Hurricane Katrina, which incited doubt about Bush's leadership and reliability in a crisis, the central element of his personal support.
Moreover, while never as strong, Bush's rating for empathy -- understanding the problems of people like you -- is down to 34 percent, 10 points lower than Bill Clinton's worst. Empathy is the cartilage that can protect a president in tough times; its perceived absence contributes to Bush's current troubles.
Gasoline prices were rising even before Katrina; immediately after it made landfall they hit a record, $3.07 a gallon, and consumer confidence tanked. While gas prices have eased since, economic complaints continue apace. Bush's 61 percent disapproval for handling the economy is the worst since his father's 72 percent in summer 1992.
While the Harriet Miers short-circuit didn't help, the next, more serious straw was the indictment of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Fifty-two percent in this survey think the case indicates broader problems with ethical wrongdoing within the administration. Few, 13 percent, think Bush himself did anything illegal; nonetheless, as noted, 58 percent now say Bush is not honest and trustworthy, a majority for the first time in his presidency.
The extent of Bush's difficulties are reflected in the damage to the two pillars of his support -- professionally, his rating on handling terrorism; and personally, his reputation as a strong leader.
Handling the nation's response to terrorism -- the issue that got Bush re-elected -- is still his best by a substantial margin. But even here, just 48 percent approve -- fewer than half for the first time, down from 56 percent in late August and down from a career average, up until now, of 69 percent.
Republicans still are with Bush -- 86 percent approve of his work on terrorism -- but that plummets to 39 percent among independents (the quintessential swing group), and barely over two in 10 Democrats.
Similarly, 47 percent of Americans call Bush a strong leader, also fewer than half for the first time, down from a previous career average of 65 percent. Again, it's the political center that's moved -- just 42 percent of independents now call Bush a strong leader; 58 percent think not.
Measures of confidence tell a similar story: Just 29 percent of Americans express substantial confidence in the Bush administration, while 71 percent don't. And nearly half, 49 percent, say their confidence in the administration has been decreasing lately, while a scant two percent say it's been rising. Even among Republicans and conservatives, about a third say their confidence has decreased.
But history shows that tides of opinion can turn. In late 1995, just 25 percent expressed confidence in the Clinton administration. That improved for Clinton in a retrospective measurement at the end of his presidency five years later.
Still, Bush's troubles stand out, in large part because they're rooted not just in economic concerns but in an increasingly unpopular war. That invites comparisons to Lyndon B. Johnson, whose approval rating suffered each year as the country became more enmeshed in Vietnam -- dropping in Gallup data from 75 percent on average in 1964, to 43 percent in 1967 and 1968. Bush, for his part, has gone from an average of 73 percent approval in 2000 and 2001 to 46 percent, on average, so far this year. The trend lines are strikingly similar.
Notably, the number of Americans who say the war in Iraq was not worth fighting, at 60 percent, is higher than the number who said in 1968 that the Vietnam war was a mistake, a high of 54 percent. That grew to 61 percent by 1971, by which time it was Richard Nixon's problem.
The public's concerns about Iraq continue to be mixed with a sense of obligation, although this, too, has ebbed. Fifty-two percent of Americans say the United States should keep its military forces in Iraq until public order is restored there, even if that means continued U.S. military casualties.
While still more than half, this is a new low, down from 58 percent in June and 66 percent in spring 2004. And it's a question that inspires deep divisons: Sixty percent of men say the Unites States should stay, compared to 45 percent of women (who tend generally to express less support for military action). And 75 percent of Republicans say the United States should stay, compared to 49 percent of independents and barely over a third of Democrats.
Examined another way, just under half of Americans, 47 percent, favor decreasing the number of U.S. military forces in Iraq, up by nine points since June. Among the rest, 36 percent say the current troop level should stay the same, and 15 percent think it should be increased. (Those who favor decreasing the deployment include the 18 percent of Americans who'd like to see all U.S. troops withdrawn immediately.)
Finally, views on the latest White House headache, the CIA leak case, are quite similar to where they stood in an ABC/Post poll just after the Libby indictment last week. Seven in 10 call it a serious case, and just about three in 10 see political motivations behind the indictment.
More people than not think Karl Rove did something wrong, by 49 percent to 26 percent. Fewer, 26 percent, think he did something illegal (rather than unethical), but this has gained eight points since the weekend. Interestingly, more people think Rove should resign than think he did something wrong in the leak case, indicating that some don't like him for other reasons.
The public continues to divide, now by 45 percent to 41 percent, on whether Libby's former boss, Vice President Dick Cheney, did anything wrong; but fewer, 21 percent, think Cheney did something illegal. A third think Bush did anything wrong, and just 13 percent think he broke a law -- a small measure of comfort for a president in a serious rough patch.
This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Oct. 30-Nov. 2, 2005, among a random national sample of 1,202 adults. The results have a three-point error margin. Fieldwork by TNS of Horsham, PA.