Bush Approval Rating Eases off the Brink

Slightly less negative views on Iraq have eased George W. Bush's job rating off the political brink, while the lack of a better idea of what to do there is helping to complicate the Democrats' opportunities in this fall's midterm election.

Bush is hardly in the clear: Just 38 percent in this ABC News/Washington Post poll approve of his work in office, up from 33 percent last month, a gain chiefly among moderate Republicans who'd been inching away. Sixty percent still disapprove of his performance, including just shy of half, a new high, who disapprove "strongly."

Sampling, data collection and tabulation for this poll were done by TNS.

Iraq remains Bush's biggest problem. There's been a slight five-point advance (to an even split) in views that the United States is making progress there, and a five-point gain in approval of how he's handling it. But 58 percent still say the war was not worth fighting, just off its peak, and 64 percent say Bush lacks a clear plan of what to do in Iraq.

However, after a fractured Democratic debate on withdrawal options last week, even more, 71 percent, say the Democrats lack a clear plan as well.

The Democrats maintain a substantial lead in overall voter preferences in November, but their advantages on specific issues have diminished. In trust to handle Iraq, a 14-point Democratic lead in May has slipped to six points now. And their advantage on national security has proved short-lived: A five-point Democratic edge on handling terrorism last month has shifted to a seven-point Republican advantage now. That change has occurred mainly among independents, the quintessential swing voters.

The Democrats also have lost ground in trust to handle immigration, a red-meat issue for core, conservative Republicans, and one on which congressional Republicans rebuked Bush last week by setting aside his two-pronged initiative -- stronger border enforcement coupled with a program leading to residency status for many illegals here now.

Despite that spat, most of Bush's gains in overall job approval have been in his own party: He's improved by 14 points among Republicans in the past month, to 82 percent approval. Seventy-eight percent of moderate Republicans now approve of his performance, up 21 points from a career-low 57 percent in May.

IRAQ -- With the difficulties in Iraq, a withdrawal deadline has gained in appeal: Given pro-and-con views (avoiding further casualties vs. the risk of encouraging the insurgents), Americans split on a withdrawal deadline, with 47 percent in favor, 51 percent opposed. Opposition is down from 60 percent in an ABC/Post poll six months ago.

Another problem in Iraq -- charges that some U.S. military forces have intentionally killed civilians there -- is broadly seen as an aberration, with 78 percent viewing these as "isolated incidents" rather than a more widespread problem. Indeed an overwhelming 86 percent approve of the way U.S. forces are handling their jobs in Iraq; 61 percent approve strongly.

Notably, even among Americans who say the war was not worth fighting, eight in 10 approve overall of the way U.S. forces are doing their jobs.

Still, there is broader recognition of a problem: Half the public is upset or even angry about the charges of civilian killings. And while 58 percent say the United States is doing enough to avoid civilian casualties in Iraq, that's sharply down from 82 percent shortly after the war began in spring 2003. Nearly four in 10 now say the United States "should do more" to avoid such casualties; three years ago just 15 percent said so.

There are substantial divisions on whether the military is doing enough to avoid civilian casualties. Men are 15 points more likely to think so than women (66 to 51 percent), most young Americans think not, and while more than three in four Republicans and seven in 10 conservatives think so, more than half of Democrats and six in 10 liberals differ.

Upset or anger about the civilian killings also peaks in some groups – in order, among liberal Democrats, better educated Americans, young adults and women (including equal numbers of Republican and Democratic women alike).

PROGRESS? -- As noted, Americans divide now evenly on whether or not the United States is making significant progress restoring civil order in Iraq. While hardly optimistic, that's better than it was in March, when 56 percent saw no such progress. The killing of al-Zarqawi and the formation of a new government under Nouri al-Maliki may have helped. (Bush got a similar bump in job approval after the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2004, but it subsided within months.) Interestingly, views of progress have advanced the most among two largely unlike groups -- Republicans and liberals. Sustained rather than episodic progress in Iraq would be the best medicine, and there the public remains skeptical: Just 40 percent express confidence Iraq will have a stable democratic government a year from now, no better than views a year ago.

Some other views on Iraq also remain glum: Fifty-eight percent say the war has not contributed to peace and stability in the Mideast, and three-quarters say it's damaged the United States' image in the rest of the world.

At the same time, despite the violence there, two-thirds still believe that overthrowing Saddam Hussein has helped to improve the lives of the Iraqi people. Americans divide on whether the war has encouraged democracy in other Arab nations.

The public continues also to divide on whether the war has improved long-term U.S. security, its chief rationale. However most, 56 percent, continue to see the war in Iraq as part of the war on terrorism; 57 percent think the war on terrorism more broadly is going well (down, however, from 65 percent in late 2003 and a high of 88 percent in January 2002); and nearly six in 10 say the country is safer now than it was before 9/11, the basic evaluation that got Bush re-elected in 2004.

Having the war in Iraq perceived as part of the war on terrorism is crucial for Bush. Holding that view significantly predicts support for the war, belief that it's contributed to U.S. security and belief that the United States is making progress there, even when political affiliation and ideology are held constant.

RATINGS and POLITICS -- On Bush's ratings on specific issues, 37 percent approve of his handling of Iraq, up from a career-low 32 percent last month, and 38 percent approve on the economy, unchanged. Fifty-one percent approve of his work on terrorism, long his best issue, although far below its past levels (a career average 66 percent up to now).

Looking to November, 52 percent of registered voters say they prefer the Democrat in their congressional district, 39 percent the Republican – a rough gauge only, given the dearth of truly competitive seats. It's looked pretty much the same since last November.

The Democrats have a 10-point edge, 48 to 38 percent, in trust to handle the nation's main problems. Their steadiest lead is in trust to handle the economy, a 52-39 percent advantage over the Republicans, and a valuable one for the Democrats, since the economy ties Iraq as the most-cited concern in this year's elections.

But the Democrats' lead on handling immigration issues has slipped to a scant five points, down from 14 points in May. And while the Democrats hold a 14-point lead on handling corruption, that's down from 25 points this spring. Indeed, when it comes to dealing with corruption in Washington, 22 percent say they don't trust either party.

METHODOLOGY -- This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone June 22-25, 2006, among a random national sample of 1,000 adults. The results have a three-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.

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