Jan. 22, 2007 — -- President Bush faces the nation this week more unpopular than any president on the eve of a State of the Union address since Richard Nixon in 1974.
Nixon was beleaguered by the Watergate scandal; for Bush, three decades later, it's the war in Iraq. With his unpopular troop surge on the table, his job rating matches the worst of his presidency: Thirty-three percent of Americans approve of his work in office while 65 percent disapprove, 2-1 negative, matching his career low last May.
Only three postwar presidents have gone lower -- Jimmy Carter, Nixon and Harry Truman. And only one has had a higher disapproval rating, Nixon.
For Bush, the bad news just starts there. Dismay over the unpopular war is dragging him down across the board, from his personal ratings to his position vis-à-vis the resurgent Democrats. It's all a remarkable comedown for a president who, shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, saw his approval rating soar to the highest for any president in polls since 1938.
Today, by contrast, 71 percent in this ABC News/Washington Post poll say the country is headed seriously off on the wrong track -- the most since budget battles led to a highly unpopular government shutdown in early 1996. Bush's war leadership clearly is the prime complaint: Sixty-four percent call the war a mistake, more than said so about Vietnam during that conflict.
The intensity of sentiment, moreover, has only grown: Fifty-one percent of Americans now "strongly" disapprove of Bush's job performance overall, a majority for the first time. Just 17 percent strongly approve -- a 3-1 negative ratio.
Through a partisan lens, three-quarters of Republicans continue to approve of Bush -- but with much diminished vigor. There are only about half as many Republicans who "strongly" approve (42 percent) as there are Democrats who strongly disapprove (76 percent). And among two of his core support groups, conservatives and evangelical white Protestants, he's at career lows in overall approval.
On a personal level, majorities now say Bush is not a strong leader (once his claim to fame), 56 percent say he can't be trusted in a crisis (another onetime mainstay), most don't see him as honest, two-thirds don't think he understands their problems and nearly as many don't think he listens to others' views. Fifty-five percent say he has not made the country more secure, his focus since 9/11.
Politically, it's no better: Majorities disapprove of Bush's handling of the war (70 percent, tying the record), terrorism (his cornerstone) and even the economy, despite its relatively good shape. Majorities trust the Democrats more than Bush to handle each one of these. On Iraq, 60 percent prefer the Democrats; on the federal budget, 62 percent -- up nearly 30 points just since last spring.
Fifty-six percent think the Democrats, not Bush, are taking the stronger leadership role in Washington these days. And most like it that way: Fifty-seven percent think the country should go in the direction in which the Democrats in Congress want to lead; just 25 percent prefer Bush's direction. Those numbers have reversed over the last six years.
Indeed, while Bush labors with a 33 percent approval rating, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is pulling in 54 percent approval (among men and women equally), with just 25 percent disapproving. Newt Gingrich, the last incoming speaker when House control switched, never saw better than 41 percent approval.
One reason: Majority support -- mainly big majorities -- for a variety of Pelosi's initiatives, including raising the minimum wage (86 percent like it), creating an independent congressional ethics commission (84 percent), having Medicare negotiate prices with drug manufacturers (79 percent), and loosening funding restrictions on stem-cell research (55 percent). In terms of popular proposals, not a bad start.
The root of Bush's problems can be summed up in three words: Iraq, Iraq and Iraq. It drives his unpopularity. Among people who oppose the war, a mere 10 percent approve of Bush's job performance; among war supporters, three-quarters approve. The correlation between attitudes on the war and on Bush is a near-perfect .98.
It was discontent with the war that fueled the Democratic takeover of Congress in November and sent Bush looking for a new strategy. His proposed solution hasn't helped: Echoing views in an ABC/Post poll after Bush addressed the nation on Iraq on Jan. 10, Americans by 65-34 percent oppose his plan for a surge of nearly 22,000 troops.
Strong disapprovers again outnumber strong approvers by nearly 3-1. In an indication of that strength of sentiment, 59 percent say Congress should try to block Bush's plan. And in a further rejection of Bush's proposal, 70 percent say he doesn't have a clear plan for handling the situation in Iraq. Even nearly four in 10 Republicans say so.
The complaint with the president's approach is its military focus at a time when most Americans have wearied of the war. Sixty-three percent say they think it's better to seek a political and diplomatic solution to the problems in Iraq; but 76 percent think Bush, instead, remains focused on a military solution.
Asked, open-ended, what's the single most important problem for Bush and Congress to deal with, 48 percent say the war, a very high level of agreement in an open-ended question. All other responses were in the single digits.
Views on Iraq are so negative that for the first time more than half of Americans, 52 percent, say the United States should withdraw its forces to avoid further U.S. casualties, even if civil order hasn't been restored. That potentially could represent a tipping point away from a sense of responsibility for the situation there.
That, in turn, reflects a glum view of both progress and likely outcomes. Just 28 percent say the war has contributed to peace and stability in the Mideast, down from a high of 51 percent a year and a half ago. Just 36 percent say it's encouraged democracy in other Arab nations, down 13 points since last summer. And while nearly half, 48 percent, think it has helped to improve the lives of the Iraqi people, that's down from a peak of 72 percent in summer 2003. About the same numbers think the war will accomplish these goals in the long term.
In another concern, 72 percent think the war in Iraq has hampered the U.S. military's ability to respond to conflicts elsewhere, and 53 percent call this a "major problem."
Amid the unrelentingly negative news on Bush and Iraq is one shift for the better -- 43 percent of Americans now think the United States will win the war, up from a low of 34 percent last month. The change has occurred almost exclusively among men, who may be more open to the idea that Bush's surge can produce its desired result.
However, that doesn't mean men like the idea -- 59 percent of men oppose the surge, as do 71 percent of women.
This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Jan.16-19, 2007, among a random national sample of 1,000 adults. The results have a three-point error margin overall, four points for leaned Democrats and five points for leaned Republicans. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.
ABC News polls can be found on ABCNEWS.com at http://abcnews.com/pollvault.html.