President Bush will begin his second term in office without a clear mandate to lead the nation, with strong disapproval of his policies in Iraq and with the public both hopeful and dubious about his leadership on the issues that will dominate his agenda, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.
On the eve of Thursday's presidential inaugural ceremonies, the survey found few signs that the country has begun to come together since Bush defeated Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) two months ago. The president has claimed a mandate from the election, but the poll found as much division today as four years ago over the question of whether Bush or Democrats in Congress should set the direction for the country.
Fewer than half of those interviewed -- 45 percent -- said they preferred that the country go in the direction that Bush wanted to lead it, whereas 39 percent said Democrats should lead the way. During the first months of his presidency, after the bitterly disputed 2000 election, Americans said they preferred Bush to take the lead by 46 percent to 36 percent.
But the public also wants cooperation from the Democrats. At a time when Democratic leaders are preparing to challenge many of Bush's major initiatives, nearly seven in 10 Americans agree that Bush's victory means that congressional Democrats should compromise with him -- even if it means compromising on their party's principles. Only one in four said Democrats must not compromise on things they find objectionable, even if it means less gets accomplished.
Looking ahead, a majority of Americans -- 55 percent -- said they expect Bush to do a better job as president in the next four years than he did during his first term. That is about equal to the proportion in January 1997 that expected President Bill Clinton's second term to be better than his first.
On Social Security, the poll offered mixed findings that underscore the enormous challenge facing Bush at the start of what both parties see as the most significant legislative battle of the second term.
Those surveyed gave Bush negative marks -- 38 percent approval vs. 55 percent disapproval -- for his handling of the Social Security issue, and three in five said the system will not have enough money to pay benefits by the time they retire. But by 54 percent to 41 percent, the public supported a plan that would include a reduction in the rate of growth of guaranteed benefits and private savings accounts financed with a portion of payroll taxes. A proposal with those elements is under consideration by the Bush administration.
Other polls have shown sizable opposition when the Bush plan is described as cutting future benefits, and the varying results among surveys suggest that the communications battle to frame the problem and the solutions may prove crucial to the outcome, as was the case in the fight over Clinton's health care plan in 1993 and 1994 and the battle to reduce the rate of growth in Medicare spending, which cost Republicans after they won control of Congress in 1994.
But Iraq and terrorism, more than Social Security, are the issues the public wants Bush to concentrate on in his second term. The poll found that Americans rank Iraq and the war on terrorism as the top priorities for Bush and Congress. More than six in 10 Americans rate the situation in Iraq as the highest priority for Bush and Congress in the coming year, and more than half say the war on terrorism also must be a top priority.
No other issue, including the economy, education, health care and Social Security, is viewed by a majority of the public as equally pressing.
Bush said in an interview last week with The Washington Post that the 2004 election was a moment of accountability for the decisions he has made in Iraq, but the poll found that 58 percent disapprove of his handling of the situation to 40 percent who approve, and 44 percent said the war was worth fighting.
The survey also found that, although Americans overwhelmingly oppose delaying the upcoming elections in Iraq, scheduled for Jan. 30, they are pessimistic that the vote will produce a stable government. Nearly six in 10 said it will not bring a stable government, but 57 percent said they see the elections as a step to the day that U.S. troops can be withdrawn from the country.
The president's overall job approval rating stands at 52 percent, up slightly in the past month. Of all presidents in the postwar era who won reelection, only Richard M. Nixon had a lower job approval rating at the start of his second term. The other chief executives began their second term with job ratings of 60 percent or higher.
A majority of Americans express disapproval of Bush on other key measures of presidential performance. A slight majority -- 52 percent -- disapprove of the way Bush is handling the economy, and half or more also are dissatisfied with the way Bush has dealt with the budget deficit (58 percent disapprove), immigration (54 percent) and health care (51 percent).