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Domestic Issues Hurt Bush in Poll

By Richard Morin and Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 20, 2004; Page A01

President Bush delivers his State of the Union address tonight to an American public that has become broadly dissatisfied with his domestic agenda, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The survey found that, on the eve of his annual address to Congress, Bush continues to enjoy a huge advantage over Democrats on matters of national security, besting them by 2 to 1 in the fight against terrorism and by nearly as broad a margin on his handling of the conflict in Iraq.

President Bush prepares at the White House for his State of the Union address. He is expected to emphasize domestic programs, which polls have identified as an area where Democrats may have an advantage. (Eric Draper -- White House)

Bush Approval Thumbnail Bush Approval Ratings

But while Bush retains the support of nearly six in 10 Americans, the public believes Democrats would do a better job on domestic issues, such as the economy, prescription drugs for the elderly, health insurance, Medicare, the budget deficit, immigration and taxes. And Bush has lost the advantage on education policy he once enjoyed.

As a result, Bush finds himself in a statistical dead heat with the opposition nine months before the election. When matched against a generic Democratic presidential candidate -- the party held its first nominating contest last night in Iowa -- Bush narrowly wins, 48 percent to 46 percent. On the question of who is trusted to handle the nation's major problems, Bush is roughly even with Democrats, ahead 45 percent to 44 percent -- down from an 18-point advantage Bush enjoyed nine months ago.

Bush's speech tonight will address this anxiety by giving greatest emphasis to his domestic proposals. Aides said the president will reverse the order of his annual address from last year -- when he closed with the case for war in Iraq -- to put his closing emphasis on domestic issues such as health care, the economy, Social Security and immigration.

That election-year emphasis closely follows the public's wishes. The poll found that worries about domestic issues have increased in the past year while concerns about terrorism, Iraq and the economy have dipped. More Americans want Bush to discuss domestic programs (40 percent) than want to hear him discuss the campaign against terrorism (15 percent).

Overall, the poll found that support for Bush remains healthy and essentially unchanged at 58 percent, in the same range it has been since July. At the same time, the number of people who strongly disapprove of his presidency reached 30 percent. That's the highest level of strong disapproval ever recorded in his presidency, and a clear sign of the intensifying dislike for Bush among his political opponents.

The poll makes it clear that neither Bush nor Democrats in Congress have been given a clear mandate by Americans to lead. It suggests that the fall presidential campaign may be driven by whether voters prefer a war president, in which case Bush has a prohibitive advantage, or one focused on the domestic concerns that favor Democrats.

As a whole, the survey findings portray Bush as a popular president who is championing unpopular programs. He has gained no advantage from the recent Republican-led success in providing a prescription drug benefit to senior citizens. And his call last week to establish a manned base on the moon and eventually send American astronauts to Mars is broadly unpopular.

Bush aides said his speech tonight will seek to remind the public about his national security achievements before laying out his bona fides on domestic matters. "He's going to speak at length about the actions we have taken over the course of last year and the path we're on of assuring that the country and our world is a safer, more peaceful place to live," a senior administration official said.

On Iraq, Bush's ratings have retreated from the surge he experienced after the capture of Saddam Hussein. A majority of Americans -- 55 percent -- continue to approve of the job Bush is doing handling the situation in Iraq, down from 60 percent one month ago but still higher than at any time in the fall.

Aides said Bush will talk about the U.S. move to transfer sovereignty to Iraqis this summer, which they hope will soothe Americans anxious about the cost of the war. A clear majority of the public -- 56 percent -- continues to say the war with Iraq was the right thing to do, down slightly from last month. The proportion who say current casualty levels are unacceptable ticked up after dropping immediately after Hussein was captured last month. But six in 10 agree with Bush's claim that the war with Iraq has helped to make the United States at least somewhat safer and more secure.

Bush appears to be well positioned on broader matters of terrorism. The heightened terror alerts over the holidays, rather than raising doubts, seem to have given Americans more confidence in the government's ability to defend the country against terrorist attacks. Fifty-five percent now say they are confident that the government can prevent further terrorist attacks in this country, up from 45 percent in September and the highest level of confidence in two years.

Bush tonight will be more on the defensive on domestic policies. The economy has lost about 2.3 million jobs since Bush took office, a budget surplus has turned into a large deficit, and Americans are divided about his main remedy for the economy: $1.7 trillion in tax cuts.

"We are an economy that is going through great change," one official said. "I think he'll demonstrate that he's not satisfied with the progress that we've made, and he'll speak directly to those issues related to jobs."

Though the public has clearly noted an uptick in the economy -- 51 percent approve of the job Bush is doing managing the economy -- four in 10 Americans still believe the economy is in recession, the poll found. By 58 percent to 39 percent, they rate the economy and not terrorism as the bigger problem facing the country. And when asked who they would prefer handling the nation's economy, more Americans favored Democrats in Congress (50 percent) than preferred Bush (43 percent), the first time in more than two years that Bush has failed to best the Democrats on this key issue.

Bush also plans tonight to discuss the high cost of health care, his proposal to allow more immigrants to earn legal status and his proposal for private Social Security accounts -- all issues on which the public has concerns about his leadership. For example, only four in 10 approve of the way that Bush is handling the issue of prescription drugs for seniors -- 6 percentage points lower than his rating less than a year ago.

Overall, while 54 percent were generally positive when asked how they felt about Bush's policies, only 12 percent said they were enthusiastic about them, and 43 percent described themselves as "satisfied but not enthusiastic." An additional 15 percent said Bush made them "angry." Even among Republicans, fewer than one in four -- 24 percent -- said they were enthusiastic about Bush's policies.

A total of 1,036 randomly selected adults were interviewed Jan. 15 to 18 for this survey. The margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

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