WASHINGTON - President Bush's job-approval rating has sunk to 45 percent, the lowest of his presidency, amid public opposition at his intervention in the Terri Schiavo case and growing concern over soaring gasoline prices.
The slide in Bush's standing comes at a time when he needs all the political leverage he can get to push through his embattled plan to change Social Security. The 45 percent rating is a far cry from his record 90 percent approval after the Sept. 11 attacks, but it's still well above the low marks scored by most recent presidents, and it's also within range of Bush's relatively steady poll numbers over the past year.
Except for a slight bounce after the Jan. 30 Iraqi elections, Bush's job-approval rating has been stuck in the high 40s to low 50s since early 2004. The Gallup polling organization tests the president's standing almost weekly by asking voters if they "approve or disapprove of the way George W. Bush is handling his job."
Pollsters attributed the president's lackluster showing to economic worries, high fuel prices and a public backlash against his entry into the Schiavo case. The CNN/USA Today/Gallup nationwide survey of 1,001 adults was conducted Monday through Wednesday, after Bush signed legislation that gave federal courts a chance to decide whether Schiavo should be allowed to die. Federal courts refused to intervene, saying the issue is properly Florida's to resolve.
Polls showed that big majorities of Americans - 70 to 82 percent -opposed Bush's and Congress' intervention.
But the Schiavo case isn't Bush's only political problem.
"The public's increasingly dismal views about the economy, and about the way things are going in general, could also be factors in Bush's lower approval rating," a Gallup analysis said. "Even more dramatic is the greater pessimism about the future of the nation's economy."
Nearly 60 percent of Americans believe the economy is getting worse, compared with only a third who think it's getting better. About 32 percent think that current economic conditions are good or excellent, compared with 41 percent who felt that way at the start of the year.
Economic jitters seem directly related to rising gas prices. That ranked at the top of concerns, along with unemployment and low wages, when poll respondents were asked to identify "the most important economic problem facing the country today."
Only 5 percent mentioned fuel prices last month, before average retail prices surged sharply above $2 a gallon nationally.
"People see the prices of their gasoline rising at the pumps," Bush said at a Wednesday news conference in Texas. "I am concerned, and the American people are concerned."
Bush's slippage in polls raises questions about his political clout at a critical time in his campaign to create private investment accounts funded by wage taxes drawn from Social Security. The president wants Congress to act on his proposal soon. He's told aides that he expects his political power to wane by the middle of next year as voters and lawmakers start to think of him as a president on the way out.
Still, even at his current low point, Bush outscores every other recent president's low point since John Kennedy, who bottomed out with a 56 percent approval rating. Richard Nixon holds the modern record for the lowest approval rating - 24 percent - during the Watergate scandal that forced his resignation.
Bush's father, whose approval high was 89 percent after the Persian Gulf War, saw his rating plummet to 29 percent amid an economic downturn. Jimmy Carter sank to 28 percent at his low point.
Bush professes little interest in polls, even though he and his aides pay close attention to them.
"For every poll you quote, I'll quote another one," he said last week when asked about polls showing opposition to his Social Security proposal.
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