June 4, 2007 -- The Democrats in Congress have lost much of the leadership edge they carried out of the 2006 midterm election, with the lack of progress in Iraq being the leading cause. Their only solace: President Bush and the Republicans aren't doing any better.
Six weeks ago the Democrats held a 24-point lead over Bush as the stronger leadership force in Washington; today that's collapsed to a dead heat. The Democrats' overall job approval rating likewise has dropped, from a 54 percent majority to 44 percent now -- with the decline occurring almost exclusively among strong opponents of the Iraq War.
Yet the Democrats' losses have not produced much in the way of gains for Bush or his party. The president's approval rating remains a weak 35 percent, unchanged from mid-April at two points from his career low in ABC News/Washington Post polls. The Republicans in Congress do about as badly, with just 36 percent approval.
Another figure underscores the public's broad grumpiness: Seventy-three percent now say the country's off on the wrong track, the most in just over a decade.
The shift away from the Democrats in Congress has occurred on two levels. In terms of their overall approval rating, the damage is almost entirely among people who strongly oppose the war in Iraq. In this group 69 percent approved of the Democrats in April, but just 54 percent still approve now -- a likely effect of the Democrats' failure to push a withdrawal timetable through Congress.
Their decline in leadership ratings vs. Bush is more broadly based -- that's occurred among war opponents and supporters alike, apparently reflecting more an assessment of their performance than an expression of support or opposition.
The Iraq Factor
More than anything, these views are fueled by the continued grind of the war in Iraq. Few think the Bush "surge" is working -- 64 percent see no significant progress restoring civil order there -- and, looking ahead, 58 percent predict it will not succeed.
Sixty-one percent say the war was not worth fighting (down a scant five points from April's record high) and majorities reject many of Bush's arguments in support of the war -- that it's a critical component of the war on terrorism, that it has improved long-term U.S. security and that withdrawing poses more danger than remaining.
Perhaps most challenging is the president's credibility gap: Sixty percent of Americans feel they can't trust the Bush administration to honestly and accurately report intelligence about security threats facing the United States. That makes any of Bush's arguments a hard sell.
Indeed, the public still trusts the Democrats in Congress over Bush to handle the situation in Iraq, by 51 percent to 35 percent. But the Democrats' number has slipped from 58 percent in April and a high of 60 percent in January.
Four in 10 see the first two outcomes as "very" likely, and a third say the same of the third. People who see any of these as very likely are much more apt than others to oppose any decrease in U.S. forces in Iraq.
As noted, other arguments raised by Bush are less persuasive. Fewer than half believe the war has contributed to the long-term security of the United States -- 44 percent in this poll, a new low. Fewer, 37 percent, believe the United States must win in Iraq in order for the broader U.S. campaign against terrorism to succeed. And fewer still, 23 percent, think withdrawing from Iraq will do more to increase the risk of a terrorist attack against the United States than remaining there.
Withdraw? -- What to do is the open question. Fifty-five percent want U.S. forces decreased -- it's been about there for a year and a half -- but just 15 percent support their immediate withdrawal. Nineteen percent would increase U.S. forces -- as many as would pull them out immediately.
The combination of these two sentiments -- deep unhappiness with the situation, and lack of consensus on what to do about it -- is what's driving broader discontent with Bush, with the Republicans in Washington and now with the Democrats as well.
Toll -- The toll of this discontent is unmistakable. Bush has not seen majority approval in any ABC/Post poll since January 2005; in presidential polling back to the late 1930s, only President Truman stayed so low for a longer period of time. And Americans are nearly three times as likely to "strongly" disapprove of Bush's job performance (46 percent) as to strongly approve (17 percent).
It's even longer -- September 2004 -- since a majority has said the war in Iraq was worth fighting. The two -- views on the war and Bush's job approval rating -- correlate very highly, at 0.9, where 0 is no correlation and 1 is complete congruence.
Overall just 31 percent approve of Bush's handling of the war in Iraq. And the public's negativity has overtaken Bush's other ratings as well, most notably on his cornerstone issue -- the one that got him re-elected -- handling the U.S. campaign against terrorism. Just 44 percent now approve, matching his career low.
Indeed a narrow majority (now 52 percent) has disapproved of Bush's handling of terrorism steadily since last October, and, since December, more have picked the Democrats than picked Bush to handle it. As in other measures, though, slightly fewer now pick the Democrats (46 percent) than did earlier this year (52 percent in February).
Separate damage for Bush has come on the subject of immigration: With his reform package on the table, his approval rating for handling immigration has plummeted among Republicans, from 61 percent in April to 45 percent now. See separate analysis here.
Groups -- As usual, partisan and ideological differences shoot through many of these results. Seventy-four percent of Republicans approve of Bush's job performance overall, compared with 32 percent of independents and just one in 10 Democrats. (But just four in 10 Republicans "strongly" approve, vs. seven in 10 Democrats who strongly disapprove.)
Similarly, two-thirds of Republicans approve of how Bush is handling the war in Iraq, and 70 percent say the war was worth fighting — views on which vastly fewer independents or Democrats agree. The division between Republicans and others on these measures underscores the challenge to Republican presidential candidates, who need to appeal to their base, which still supports Bush — yet also to be in a position to broaden that appeal, in a general election campaign, to those who don't.
This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone May 29-June 1, 2007, among a random national sample of 1,205 adults, including an oversample of African-Americans for a total of 284 black respondents. The results have a three-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.
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