President Bush's job approval rating has fallen to the lowest level of his presidency, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll. The poll found Americans stiffening their opposition to the Iraq war, worried that the invasion could invite domestic terrorist attacks and skeptical about whether the White House has been fully truthful about the war or about abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison.
A majority of respondents in the poll, conducted before yesterday's transfer of power to an interim Iraqi government, said that the war was not worth its cost in American lives and that the Bush administration did not have a clear plan to restore order to Iraq.
The survey, which showed Mr. Bush's approval rating at 42 percent, also found that nearly 40 percent of Americans say they do not have an opinion about Senator John Kerry, the likely Democratic presidential nominee, despite what have been both parties' earliest and most expensive television advertising campaigns.
Among those who do have an opinion, Mr. Kerry is disliked more than he is liked. More than 50 percent of respondents said that Mr. Kerry says what he thinks voters want to hear, suggesting that Mr. Bush has had success in portraying his opponent as a flip-flopper.
Americans were more likely to believe that Mr. Bush would do a better job than Mr. Kerry would in steering the nation through a foreign crisis, and protecting it from future terrorist attacks. Support for Mr. Bush's abilities in those areas has declined in recent months, but the findings suggest that Americans are more comfortable entrusting their security to a president they know than a challenger who remains relatively unknown.
Even so, the poll was scattered with warning flags for Mr. Bush, and there was compelling evidence that his decision to take the nation to war against Iraq has left him in a precarious political position.
As he heads into the fall election, Mr. Bush appears to have much riding on the transfer of power in Baghdad yesterday. The 42 percent of Americans who say they approve of the way Mr. Bush is handling his job is the lowest such figure in a Times/CBS News survey since the beginning of Mr. Bush's presidency in January 2001; 51 percent say they disapprove.
Over the past 25 years, according to pollsters, presidents with job approval ratings below 50 percent in the spring of election years have generally gone on to lose. Mr. Bush's father had a 34 percent job approval rating at this time in 1992.
Similarly, 45 percent said they had an unfavorable opinion of Mr. Bush himself, again the most negative measure the Times/CBS Poll has found since he took office. And 57 percent say the country is going in the wrong direction, another measure used by pollsters as a barometer of discontent with an incumbent.
Yet the survey found little evidence that Mr. Kerry has been able to take advantage of the president's difficulties, even though Mr. Kerry has spent $60 million on television advertising over the past three months.
Nationwide, Mr. Kerry has the support of 45 percent of registered voters, with Mr. Bush supported by 44 percent. When Ralph Nader, who is running as an independent, is included, he draws 5 percent, leaving 42 percent for Mr. Kerry and 43 percent for Mr. Bush
In the 18 states viewed by both parties as the most competitive — and thus the subject of the most advertising expenditures and visits by the candidates — the race was equally tight. Forty-five percent of voters in those states said they would support Mr. Kerry, and 43 percent said they would back Mr. Bush. Indeed, on a host of measures, the poll found little difference in public opinion between the nation as a whole and that of voters in the competitive states.
The tight race indicated by the poll reflects how aides to both Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry have described the overall state of play for weeks. But other polls have, at times, shown Mr. Kerry or Mr. Bush bumping ahead. A CBS News poll taken last month found Mr. Kerry with a lead of 49 percent to 41 percent over Mr. Bush.
The nationwide poll of 1,053 adults, including 875 registered voters, was taken by telephone June 23 to June 27. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
For all the signs of opposition to the war, Americans appear prepared to stay in Iraq until the situation becomes stable. The poll found that 54 percent of respondents said that the United States should remain in Iraq "as long as it takes," while 40 percent said the United States should withdraw "as soon as possible."
Overall, the poll's findings left little doubt about the extent to which Mr. Bush's decision to go to war is proving to be perhaps the most fateful of his presidency. About 60 percent of respondents said they disapproved of Mr. Bush's Iraq policy, while just over 50 percent said they disapproved of his foreign policy. Those disapproval figures are the highest measured in his presidency on those subjects.
And 60 percent of respondents, including a majority of independents, said the war has not been worth the cost.
"We attacked a sovereign nation, and we went in there and we did things that the United States shouldn't have done," Charles Drum, 36, a Republican from Alameda, Calif., said in an interview after the poll was taken. "I feel that we went after the wrong people, and it's unacceptable, and it's absolutely ridiculous that innocent people are dying over there in Iraq, and our own troops are dying for a cause that is not just."
Respondents said that Mr. Bush's policies in Iraq were having the effect of creating terrorists and of increasing the chances of another terrorist attack at home. Concerns about the war appear to undercut what has long been one of Mr. Bush's strong suits, his handling of the fight against terrorism. Fifty-two percent of Americans now say they approve of the way Mr. Bush is conducting that fight, down from 90 percent in December 2001.
"I watch the news quite a bit, and I'm kind of thinking it's getting these terrorists motivated to do more," said Charlie Buck, 54, a Republican from Indiana, Pa. "Whether it's their religious beliefs or it's us trying to step into their country, I just get that feeling that they feel that we're stepping into where we shouldn't be, and it's inciting them. It's stimulating them to be more aggressive in getting us out."
In what could prove to be a particularly far-reaching development for Mr. Bush — especially because he and his campaign have sought to undercut Mr. Kerry's credibility — nearly 60 percent said he was not being entirely truthful when talking about Iraq. Similarly, just 15 percent said the administration had told the entire truth when it came to abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison.
There are some ways in which Mr. Kerry and Mr. Bush are viewed similarly. They are seen as political leaders who keep their word, and both are viewed as optimistic, suggesting that Mr. Bush's attempt to portray Mr. Kerry as pessimistic has not taken hold.
But there are signs that Americans are beginning to form very different personal perceptions of these two men. Mr. Kerry was described as more likely than Mr. Bush to admit a mistake, and to listen to divergent opinions. Mr. Bush is viewed as someone who takes a position and sticks with it, and while those interviewed were split on whether that was a positive trait, it is a contrast that Mr. Bush's campaign has encouraged as a way of trying to undercut Mr. Kerry
"Kerry has flip-flopped too many times," said Joseph Martin, 52, an independent voter who lives outside Seattle. "The one thing that I think that a lot of people understand is a position of strength, and you cannot be waffling around. You've got to show a commitment, show a determination and keep a steady hand, and I just don't think Kerry has got that."
For Mr. Bush, the poll contains a number of potentially worrisome findings. By 51 to 32 percent, Americans believe that he has divided the nation, rather than brought it together. The number of Americans who said that Mr. Bush did not care about the "needs and problems of people like you" edged up to 42 percent from 36 percent in March. More than 50 percent said that Mr. Bush did not have the same priorities for the country as they did.
On the issue of the economy, even though job-creation numbers have been rising over the past few months, 45 percent of Americans say that the Bush administration has been responsible for a decline in jobs, compared with 24 percent who say it has brought an increase. Fifty-five percent of respondents said they were very or somewhat concerned that they or someone in their house would be out of work over the next year.
Republicans, remembering what happened when Mr. Bush's father lost in 1992, have long expressed concern that any improvement in the economy will happen too late to capture the notice of voters.
Both men are disliked by more people than they are liked. The number of people who view Mr. Kerry unfavorably has jumped to 35 percent from 29 percent in mid-March, when Mr. Bush began a huge television advertising campaign against his opponent.
In Mr. Kerry's case, 36 percent said they had no opinion of him, despite the campaign's record-setting expenditure on television advertisements. That figure is fairly typical for challengers at this point in the campaign; in June 1992, 44 percent of the public did not have an opinion of Bill Clinton.
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