Friday, June 17, 2005

Bush's Support on Major Issues Tumbles in Poll

The New York Times

Bush's Support on Major Issues Tumbles in Poll

Increasingly pessimistic about Iraq and skeptical about President Bush's plan for Social Security, Americans are in a season of political discontent, giving Mr. Bush one of the lowest approval ratings of his presidency and even lower marks to Congress, according to the New York Times/CBS News Poll.

Forty-two percent of the people responding to the poll said they approved of the way Mr. Bush was handling his job, a marked decline from his 51 percent rating after of the November election, when he embarked on an ambitious second term agenda led by the overhaul of Social Security. Sixteen months before the midterm elections, Congress fared even worse in the survey, with the approval of just 33 percent of the respondents, and 19 percent saying Congress shared their priorities.

Despite months of presidential effort, the nationwide poll found the public is not rallying toward Mr. Bush's vision of a new Social Security that would allow younger workers to put part of their payroll taxes into private investment accounts. Two-thirds said they were uneasy about Mr. Bush's ability to make sound decisions on Social Security. Only 25 percent said they approved of the way Mr. Bush was handling Social Security, down slightly from what the poll found in March.

Moreover, 45 percent said the more they heard about the Bush plan, the less they liked it. The survey also found the public shared the growing skepticism in Washington about Mr. Bush's prospects for success on Social Security, with most saying they did not think Mr. Bush would succeed.

Still, Mr. Bush continued to have majority support for his handling of the war on terrorism - 52 percent - one of his strengths throughout his 2004 re-election campaign.

Mr. Bush's approval rating is below the historical pattern for June in the first year of a second term: President Clinton's stood at 60 percent and President Reagan's at 59 percent. But that could reflect, in part, the much greater partisan polarization in modern politics, underscored by the 71 percentage point gap between Mr. Bush's approval rating from Democrats and Republicans in the recent poll. Nicolle Devenish, White House communications director, dismissed the significance of the poll, saying Mr. Bush believes that following polls is equivalent to a dog chasing its tail. "We have advanced a broad agenda, and will continue to advocate the people's priorities," she said.

On Iraq, months of continued turmoil, insurgent attacks and casualties appear to have taken a further toll on public attitudes. Looking back, 51 percent said they thought the United States should have stayed out of Iraq, while 45 percent said military action was the right thing to do. That reflects only a slight erosion from findings by CBS News throughout the spring, but a marked turnaround from 2004, when pluralities tended to think it was still the right thing to do.

Moreover, only 37 percent said they approved of Mr. Bush's handling of the situation in Iraq, down from 45 percent in February. A strong majority of Americans now say the effort by the United States to bring stability and order to Iraq is going badly - 60 percent, up from 47 percent in February.

The latest poll was conducted by telephone June 10 through Wednesday with 1,111 adults and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

In general, the survey found Americans in a darker mood. In one key measure, only 33 percent said they thought the country was on the right track, while 61 percent said it had gone off in the wrong direction. Similar results were found by CBS News in April and May, but that measure of national optimism was markedly better last November. There was little change in the way Americans rate the current condition of the American economy - 54 percent say it is very or fairly good. But the number of Americans who say the economy is getting worse is growing, to 36 percent from 30 percent in February.

When asked an open-ended question about the most important problems facing the nation, Americans cited the economy and jobs, war and terrorism at the top of the list. Social Security, which has consumed an enormous amount of political energy this spring, did not make the top six, suggesting voters have a different view of political priorities than the Republican-controlled Congress and the White House.

The public's view of Congress dropped sharply earlier this year, and has hovered at unusually low levels since March, according to CBS News Polls.

The sharpest drop in Congressional approval in recent months occurred among Republicans. In February, 54 percent of Republicans said they approved of the way Congress was doing its job; in the most recent poll, that had dropped to 40 percent. Some analysts suggest that Congress is paying the price for months of intense partisan struggle over judicial nominations and the decision to intervene in the right-to-die case of Terri Schiavo.

Christine Weisman, a 54-year-old Republican homemaker in Reading, Pa., said in a follow-up interview, "They're not getting anything done. They don't seem to be able to come together on anything." She added, "It's all a political thing and they're forgetting the basic needs of the people."

Representative Rahm Emanuel, the Illinois Democrat who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said, "The American people know instinctively that we have major problems and we've got a Congress that is not attending or dealing with them." As the party in control, Republicans should be held responsible, Mr. Emanuel said, although he added that the 2006 midterms were far too distant for predictions.

Representative Thomas M. Reynolds of New York, who heads the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the old truism still held: "People are not enamored, maybe, of the institution of Congress, but they love their congressman." He added, "My advice to the policy makers around Congress is to continue to get the work done, and make sure that as we get the work done, people know about it."

Mr. Bush faces a very resistant public when it comes to his Social Security proposals. He recently embraced a solvency plan that would cushion the lowest income workers from any benefit cuts, but a majority in the survey said they still believed Mr. Bush's general plan would most benefit high income people.

He has spent months trying to explain the virtues of private investment accounts, but public opinion on them remains very divided. Forty-five percent said those accounts were a good idea, 50 percent a bad idea, the same breakdown found in the survey in January.

People like the idea that the accounts could be inherited and that they could result in more money for retirement; both arguments boost support for the accounts. But the idea that these accounts could lead to huge amounts of government borrowing - to finance the transition costs - resulted in a very negative response, as did the idea that the accounts would be accompanied by a cut in the guaranteed government benefit.

Americans also recognized that Mr. Bush has a Social Security plan and the Democrats in Congress do not. A majority said they would like to see the Democrats offer a plan and not simply oppose Mr. Bush's.

But most said they did not think Mr. Bush's plan for private accounts would do anything for the system's long-term solvency.

Mr. Bush's approval rating in the Times/CBS Survey is one of a series of recent national polls that registered difficulties for Mr. Bush. The Associated Press-Ipsos Poll found Mr. Bush with a 43 percent approval rating; Gallup with 47 percent, and the Washington Post/ABC News Poll at 48 percent.

Fred Backus contributed reporting for this article.