The Gallup poll released Friday echoed other recent polls showing Bush's historically high 90 percent approval rating after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks has declined to 61 percent.
A Gallup survey from earlier last week showed Bush getting a 58 percent approval rating the lowest since before 9-11.
"If the economy wasn't so bad, the decline would have been more gradual," Gallup's Jeffrey Jones says.
The slippage recalls that suffered by President George Bush after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Bush, father of the president, enjoyed an 89 percent approval rating the week after a U.S.-led coalition evicted Iraqi occupation forces from Kuwait in a stunning four-day ground war.
But 16 months later, the elder Bush's approval ratings had plummeted to 32 percent, setting the stage for his defeat in 1992.
"Everybody is watching to see if Bush goes the way of his father from 90 percent to toast in barely a year," said William Schneider, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute. "Right now I'd call this drop a decline not yet a collapse."
Fifty-five percent of those surveyed by Gallup said Bush was not spending enough time on the economy, which remains afflicted with the worst unemployment in almost nine years, a three-year stock market decline that has cost stockholders almost $6 trillion, and economic growth of barely 1.5 percent over the last seven quarters.
Only 36 percent of respondents said they would "definitely vote" for Bush in 2004.
"Bush is suffering a rapid decline, just like his father," says James Thurber, a presidential scholar at American University. "With high unemployment, a low stock market hitting the middle class, a controversial economic stimulus package and anxiety about the war in Iraq no wonder his approval rating has dropped."
Bruce Buchanan, a presidential scholar at the University of Texas at Austin, says Americans are taking a second look at controversies over Bush's domestic proposals, now that fears of terrorist attacks have diminished.
Bush's job approval ratings have continued to slip since the historic GOP gains in the House and Senate in the midterm congressional election in November.
Buchanan cited Bush's economic stimulus package and his resubmission of controversial judicial nominations to the Senate. He also said Bush and the GOP suffered because of the controversy over remarks by Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., endorsing the 1948 Dixiecrat segregationist presidential campaign of retiring Sen. Storm Thurmond, R-S.C.
Bush helped orchestrate Lott's resignation as incoming Senate majority leader.
Only 12 percent in the Gallup survey said Bush's plan would make a big difference in their family finances.
Bush's popularity also suffers because of uncertainty over Iraq. The percentage of Americans who consider Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein a threat has slipped from 65 percent to 56 percent, according to the latest Gallup survey.
Support for an attack on Iraq remains highly conditional, according to a survey by Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
Seventy-six percent of respondents said they favored using military force if U.N. inspectors found Iraq hiding weapons of mass destruction. But only 46 percent want force if inspectors find Iraq hiding "the ability to easily make weapons."
Iraq's failure to prove the absence of weapons of mass destruction the cornerstone of Bush's demands warranted the use of force for only 29 percent of those asked.
Antiwar sentiments have started to surface, as well. The Pew survey found 53 percent of respondents believed Bush had not clearly explained the rationale for using U.S. military forces to oust Saddam up from 37 percent who expressed that sentiment in September.
In a Newsweek poll released Saturday, 60 percent said they would prefer the Bush administration allow more time to find an alternative to war, according to the Associated Press.
Support for a military option would be strong, 81 percent, if the United States were to act with full allied support and the backing of the U.N. Security Council. A majority would be opposed should this country act without the support of the United Nations and had no more than one or two allies.
The president's job approval was at 56 percent in the Newsweek poll and 53 percent in a CNN-Time poll released over the weekend. His approval rate was in the 60s in both polls in November.
According to the CNN-Time poll, the decline comes as a result of slightly higher disapproval among Republicans, independents and Democrats.
Half in the CNN-Time poll, 50 percent, said they approve Bush's handling of foreign policy, while 42 percent disapprove. In July, before the administration began its public campaign about Iraq, 64 percent approved his handling of foreign policy.
People worry about the impact of the United States' taking military action against Iraq.
More than half in the Newsweek poll, 54 percent, said they expect it would cause serious divisions with allies. And more than two-thirds thought it would cause serious problems throughout the Arab countries and would cause Saddam to use biological or chemical weapons against Israel.
The experts said Bush can look for "a blip" in his popularity after the nationally televised State of the Union address on Jan. 28.
Jones and Schneider agreed that the approval rating of 61 percent recorded Friday showed Bush remains a force to be reckoned with in 2004.
"If his father had 61 percent approval, there would not have been a President Clinton," Schneider said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
© 2003 San Antonio Express-News