WASHINGTON —President Bush is at a low point in public approval, his popularity depressed by questions about the Iraq war, continued economic frustration and public interest in his leading Democratic rival, an ABCNEWS/Washington Post poll finds.
Bush's overall job approval rating has fallen to 50 percent, a career low. His rating for honesty and trustworthiness is likewise at a new low.
For the first time, fewer than half of Americans now say the war with Iraq was worth fighting. Fifty-seven percent disapprove of Bush's performance in terms of job creation. And John Kerry leads him in a head-to-head match-up, 51 percent to 43 percent, although the Massachusetts senator's support is noticeably softer.
More people say the investigation into this issue should focus on the way the administration handled the intelligence, rather than on the accuracy of the intelligence itself (53 percent to 35 percent, with seven percent saying both should be focused on equally).
More also would prefer to see an answer sooner before the presidential election rather than later.
Context is critical: These results come at the zenith of the Democratic primary season, after a period of intense and positive coverage of Kerry; and they follow a slump for Bush extending from his poorly reviewed State of the Union address through his admission that Iraq might not have had weapons of mass destruction after all.
While this poll underscores Bush's vulnerabilities, he does retain his core strengths broad approval for handling the war on terrorism and an image as a strong leader. And while most Americans believe his administration intentionally exaggerated evidence of Iraq's weapons of mass destructions, far fewer (21 percent) think it outright lied. Indeed, two-thirds think the administration honestly believed Iraq did possess these weapons. Most also continue to say the war has contributed to the long-term security of the United States.
National Guard Controversy a Non-Issue
On another front, questions about Bush's National Guard duty during the Vietnam War lack traction: Americans by more than 2-to-1 66 percent to 30 percent say it's not a legitimate issue in the election campaign. More, by contrast, say it is legitimate to look into questions about Kerry's fund raising as a U.S. senator (a 42 percent to 46 percent split). And as noted, Bush's support is firmer than the less well-known Kerry's: 83 percent of Bush's backers support him strongly, compared with 59 percent of Kerry's.
But there's no doubt that the president's in some difficulty. The number of Americans who view him as honest and trustworthy has dived from 70 percent before the Iraq war to 52 percent now. It is threatening for a president to have his fundamental veracity in some doubt, particularly on issues of policy rather than (as with Bill Clinton) personal conduct.
Fifty-seven percent also think Bush doesn't understand the problems of ordinary Americans. And majorities rate Bush negatively on four of six issues tested in this poll the economy, Iraq, health insurance and job creation. (The last is particularly sensitive given the current flap on outsourcing jobs overseas, which Bush's chief economic adviser said Monday was "a good thing.")
Intensity of feeling is up, as happens during presidential election campaigns; the number of Americans who "strongly" disapprove of Bush's work in office now for the first time slightly exceeds those who "strongly" approve. And Kerry leads Bush in trust to handle four of six issues health costs, jobs, the economy, and education leaving Bush the lead on Iraq and the war on terrorism.
The trend line of Bush's overall job approval rating since taking office is telling. From a middling level, his support soared after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and settled back only gradually, remaining remarkably high for nearly two years, including another peak during the Iraq war last spring. His rating dropped last summer and fall amid trouble in Iraq and economic concern at home; it then leveled, and rebounded a bit after the capture of Saddam Hussein, but now has dropped again.
None of this predicts what will occur in the presidential election nine months from now. (It's worth noting that the leader in the pre-election polls in June 1992, Ross Perot, fizzled fast.) But at this point in a presidential year what matters more than a president's approval rating is its trajectory, and Bush's, at the moment, is not good. What he hopes to avoid is the fate of his father, who was at 46 percent approval in February 1992 and falling fast, en route to defeat in November.
Among the critical factors is the economy. Consumer confidence as measured in the weekly ABCNEWS/Money magazine poll is far better now than it was in 1992. But after recovering somewhat in December, public ratings of Bush's economic performance have turned more sour. Forty-seven percent of Americans say most people have gotten worse off financially while he's been president, up seven points. Disapproval of his handling of the economy has increased by 10 points, to 54 percent; it's been numerically higher only once, 56 percent in mid-September.
Empathy can help shield a president from these and other slings and arrows, but here, too, Bush has trouble. At its peak in January 2002, not long after 9/11, 61 percent of Americans said Bush understands the problems of people like them. Today that's down to 41 percent.
A Questions of War and Weapons
Finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq never has been a central demand; in this poll 57 percent say the war can be justified even if WMDs are not found (near what it was in December, and also last summer).
But there was and for many still is an expectation that these weapons do, or did, exist. In December 2002, as the administration built its case for war, 89 percent of Americans believed that Iraq did have such weapons; even today, 61 percent still think it did have WMDs that have not been found.
More critical, politically, is whether the administration fairly made its case. On one hand, 68 percent in this poll think the administration honestly believed that Iraq possessed WMDs; on the other, 54 percent think it "intentionally exaggerated" its evidence. (It was nearly the same, 50 percent, last summer.)
Investigate the Intelligence Handling
It follows that more people say the investigation into this issue should focus on the way the administration handled the intelligence, rather than on the accuracy of the intelligence itself (53 percent to 35 percent, with seven percent saying both should be focused on equally).
More also would prefer to see an answer sooner before the presidential election rather than later. Bush's plan a broader investigation into the quality of U.S. intelligence, with a report after the election is preferred by just 35 percent. Instead 51 percent prefer a narrower investigation focused on the accuracy and use of Iraq intelligence, with results before Nov. 2. And a few want both.
Was the Iraq War Worth Fighting?
Another central political battle is the fundamental question of whether the war in Iraq was worth fighting. A variety of cost-benefit factors play into this evaluation security, casualties, money costs, and progress on the ground in establishing a functioning government and bringing the troops home.
The result of this equation today is far less positive than it was in the heady days after the fall of Baghdad. Last April, just as Bush was about to declare the main fighting over, 70 percent of Americans said the war was worth fighting. Today that's dropped to 48 percent as noted, under a majority for the first time.
A striking difference in views of the war comes from assessments of whether it has or has not contributed to the long-term security of the United States. Among people who say it's contributed "a great deal" to U.S. security (a third of the public), 85 percent say the war was worth fighting. Among those who say it's contributed "somewhat," 60 percent say it was worth it. But among those who don't see security gains, just one in 10 says it was worth going to war with Iraq.
There are significant differences across population groups on many of these issues. On a variety of fronts Bush's support is stronger among men and weaker among women. In particular women are much less likely to approve of his handling of Iraq or the war on terrorism, and they prefer Kerry over Bush by a 17-point margin, while men split evenly. Part of these differences are because women are more likely to be Democrats; but even among Democrats only, women tend to be more critical of Bush.
Bush also is less popular among older Americans, who, among other factors, continue to be more skeptical of the war in Iraq; six in 10 seniors believe it was not worth fighting.
Some of Bush's strongest support comes from those who say Americans are better off financially than when he took office (although there are comparatively few of them 14 percent of the public). His approval also exceeds 80 percent among those who say the war was worth fighting and who think it improved security a great deal.
Matched against Kerry, Bush does best again among those who are more content with his economic performance and those who feel a great deal safer because of the war; he's also preferred, naturally, by 85 percent of Republicans, and by 64 percent of conservatives.
In addition to Democrats and liberals, Kerry is strongest among those who think Bush isn't honest and trustworthy, who believe the administration lied about WMDs, who oppose the war and think it didn't improve U.S. security, and who think most Americans have lost ground financially under this president. All these look to be the central issues on which the 2004 presidential election will be fought.
This ABCNEWS/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Feb. 10-11 among a random national sample of 1,003 adults. The results have a three-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation were done by TNS Intersearch of Horsham, Pa.
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