Jan. 17, 2005 — -- President Bush approaches his second inauguration with a comparatively weak job approval rating, subdued expectations for his performance in office and the daunting challenge of a single issue with the potential to make or break his second term: Iraq.
While the president has signaled an intention to focus on selected domestic issues, it's Iraq that dominates public concern. Sixty-one percent give it a "highest priority" rating for Bush and the Congress to address, easily the most among a dozen issues tested in this ABC News/Washington Post poll. Thirty-five percent, by contrast, give that level of priority to Social Security, and far fewer still to either immigration issues or tort reform.
Reflecting their political mood -- hardly celebratory -- Americans even express doubt about the president's inaugural plans, saying by more than a 2-1 margin, 66 percent-32 percent, that because the country is at war they'd prefer a smaller and more subdued inauguration to the $40 million bash (largely privately funded) the administration plans this week.
Bush's overall job approval rating stands at 52 percent, about its average across election-year 2004 and well below his career average, 64 percent. Perhaps more tellingly, of the seven presidents elected to a second term in the last 56 years, only one -- Richard Nixon -- received as tepid an approval rating on the eve of his second inauguration. Indeed Bush's rating is 13 points below the pre-inaugural average for the last six second-termers.
There are opportunities for Bush in public attitudes: More than half the public supports changes he's proposed in Social Security, immigration and tort reform. His approval rating for handling terrorism -- the wellspring of his support -- has rebounded, gaining eight points since last month. And, critically for any incumbent, economic discontent has eased, with a 13-point drop since mid-2003 in the number of Americans who give it a top priority.
There are clear challenges for Bush as well, including an advantage for the Democrats in trust to handle Social Security, and continued weak ratings for the president on this and a range of other domestic issues. But there also are challenges for the Democrats in Congress: The public by 45 percent-39 percent says the country should go in Bush's direction rather than theirs; and by a huge 69 percent-28 percent says the Democrats should compromise with Bush on major issues rather than simply blocking him.
In terms of the double-edged sword of expectations, 55 percent expect Bush to do a better job in his second term than in his first, about the same as it was for Bill Clinton on the eve of his second inauguration. But 29 percent expect Bush to do a worse job in his second term -- 10 points higher than it was for Clinton.
IRAQ -- Handling Iraq is Bush's greatest task. Fifty-eight percent disapprove of his work there, matching his worst rating on the issue (set last May in the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib scandal). Fifty-five percent say the war was not worth fighting, about the same as last month, when it hit a new high. And the number who say the war has improved the long-term security of the United States -- its fundamental rationale -- has slipped beneath a majority for the first time.
The shift in public perceptions on Iraq is striking. In April 2003, as the major fighting ended, 29 percent of Americans assigned the situation there a "highest priority" for Bush and the Congress. Today, as noted, 61 percent give it top priority -- up by 45 points among Democrats, but also by 25 points among Republicans.
There is broad support for holding the Iraqi elections scheduled for later this month -- 73 percent say they should go forward, up from 60 percent last month -- even though most, 57 percent, are skeptical these elections will produce a stable government. A chief reason for this support is that most think the elections will move the United States closer to the day U.S. forces can be withdrawn from Iraq.
It's notable -- and perhaps a concern for the administration -- how closely linked Iraq is to the president's bottom line. Among people who think the war was worth fighting, 92 percent also approve of Bush's work in office overall. Among those who think the war was not worth it, 79 percent disapprove of Bush's performance more broadly.
In one heartening result for the administration -- yet also a challenge to perform -- 58 percent of Americans expect "substantial progress" on Iraq in Bush's second term, second only to the 70 percent who expect good progress in the war on terrorism. Overall, though, of the dozen issues tested, majorities expect substantial progress in just half -- and that does not include such heavy hitters as health care and Social Security.
PRIORITIES, PROGRESS and APPROVALS -- Terrorism comes second to Iraq in public concern, with 52 percent rating it a "highest priority" issue. Next, at some distance, are education -- an issue on which Bush's rating has rebounded from something of an election-year slump -- and the economy and health care. While he's not strong on these, his approval rating on health care, at 42 percent, has inched to a career best.
Social Security and the deficit are next on the priority list; other issues a good deal lower.
It's notable that Bush gets majority approval on just three of these issues, terrorism, education and tort reform, compared with majority disapproval on six -- Iraq, the deficit, Social Security, immigration, the economy and health care. It's more of a split on three others, taxes, the environment and foreign affairs. In one other issue, his response to the South Asian tsunami disaster, Bush gets a vast 83 percent approval rating.
Comparisons to Clinton at this stage are available on some issues. Forty-six percent approve of Bush's work on the economy; it was 61 percent for Clinton just before his second inauguration. On the other hand, Bush's 51 percent approval for handling foreign affairs is close to Clinton's 54 percent in mid-January 1997.
Expectations for "substantial progress" from Bush are about the same as they were for Clinton on some issues -- the economy, Social Security and health care. But they're six points lower for Bush on education, 16 points lower on the deficit and 28 points lower on the environment.
On a more personal level, half of Americans said Clinton understood the problems of average Americans; seven points fewer say the same of Bush. Indeed there are just three prominent political groups in which majorities say Bush understands their problems: Republicans, conservatives and evangelical white Protestants. Bush does better, though, as a leader who "shares your values"; 54 percent of all Americans say this is so.
PARTISANSHIP, MODERATION and WOMEN -- Partisanship is a heavy factor in presidential approval. At the most basic, Bush gets a 91 percent job approval rating from Republicans, but just 22 percent from Democrats.
But that isn't necessarily new: There was a similar partisan gap for Clinton in January 1997. The difference is in their appeal to the center: In 1997, 61 percent of independents and 65 percent of moderates approved of Clinton's performance; today, Bush gets just 49 and 46 percent support in these same groups.
There's a difference between the sexes, too. Bush and Clinton's approval ratings at this point in their careers are nearly identical among men. But Bush's is 15 points weaker among women -- who, among other factors, are more critical of his work on Iraq.
There also are grounds for comparison with Richard Nixon, since his and Bush's pre-inauguration job approval ratings are so similar. The most striking difference is in volatility: Nixon's rating gyrated dramatically, 59 percent a month after the 1972 election, 51 percent before his second inauguration, up to 67 percent when the Vietnam peace accords were signed days later, then spiraling rapidly down in the Watergate scandal. Bush's by contrast has been steady, between 47 and 54 percent, over the last 11 months.
SOCIAL SECURITY -- As noted, Bush has underscored three domestic issues in recent weeks -- Social Security, immigration and tort reform. He has good possibilities on all three, but again, challenges as well.
On Social Security, Americans divide about evenly on the question of cutting the rate of growth in benefits for future retirees: Forty-eight percent opposed, 47 percent in favor. That's less opposition than some have suggested, given the treasured program's famed third-rail danger.
One likely factor is how the issue is presented. Some other surveys have posited a cut in benefits; this one instead posed the question as a reduction in the rate of growth, which is more specifically what's been proposed. This survey also specified the apparent size of the reduction, up to one and a half percent a year.
Another aspect of the administration's plan, partial privatization through a stock-market investment option, gets 55 percent support in this survey, about where it's been (but down from its level before the market bubble burst in 2000 and 2001). An ABC/Post poll last month, however, found this support sharply lower if it means borrowing up to $2 trillion to pay for it.
A plan that combines these two features -- reducing the rate of growth in benefits, and providing a stock-market option for contributions -- wins 54 percent support, with 41 percent opposed. (Twenty percent are "strongly" in favor, 25 percent strongly against.)
Polls describing the change as a cut in benefits, rather than as a cut in the growth of benefits, have found majority opposition. Further testing is needed as the plan becomes clearer, but this suggests that ultimate public perceptions of what's cut -- benefits or their rate of growth -- may well be a decisive factor in its acceptability.
There are other factors as well. Working against Bush is the plurality preference for the Democrats' approach to Social Security, and his 55 percent disapproval rating for handling the issue (matching the worst of his career). So is partisanship -- Republicans are 25 points more apt than Democrats to support his plan, 69 percent to 44 percent.
But working for him is belief the program is in trouble: Six in 10 Americans continue to think there won't be enough money in the system to pay their full benefits. Younger adults are especially likely to think so, and as a result are especially likely to support the changes Bush has proposed. Support for his plan peaks at 71 percent among adults younger than 30; it's just half that, 34 percent, among senior citizens.
IMMIGRATION -- On immigration, the public favors both a carrot and a stick approach that seems similar to Bush's, despite his low (33 percent) approval on the issue. On one hand, 77 percent say the government should do more to keep illegal immigrants out; 57 percent also favor denying them driver's licenses or other official ID, as some Republicans have proposed.
At the same time, 61 percent say illegal immigrants living and working here should be offered a chance to keep their jobs and eventually apply for legal status, rather than being deported. Interestingly this amnesty plan gets more support from Democrats (72 percent) than from Republicans (55 percent), and more from liberals than from conservatives -- surely one of the very few Bush proposals that does better outside his base than within it.
TORT REFORM -- On one further issue, Americans by 2-1 favor limits on class-action lawsuits, as Bush has proposed. Support for a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages in medical liability is lower but still over half (52 percent when the question is made personal; a similar 56 percent if it applies to others).
Nonetheless, 57 percent also say, on principle, that companies should face the possibility of large-penalty lawsuits, both to compensate the injured and to keep hazardous products out of the market. That makes this yet another issue on which careful pathfinding is required if Bush's proposals are to prevail in the second term ahead.
This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Jan. 12-16 among a random national sample of 1,007 adults. The results have a three-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.
You can find more ABC News polls in our Poll Vault.