By Dana Milbank and Claudia Deane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 8, 2005
For the first time since the war in Iraq began, more than half of the American public believes the fight there has not made the United States safer, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
While the focus in Washington has shifted from the Iraq conflict to Social Security and other domestic matters, the survey found that Americans continue to rank Iraq second only to the economy in importance -- and that many are losing patience with the enterprise.
Nearly three-quarters of Americans say the number of casualties in Iraq is unacceptable, while two-thirds say the U.S. military there is bogged down and nearly six in 10 say the war was not worth fighting -- in all three cases matching or exceeding the highest levels of pessimism yet recorded. More than four in 10 believe the U.S. presence in Iraq is becoming analogous to the experience in Vietnam.
Perhaps most ominous for President Bush, 52 percent said war in Iraq has not contributed to the long-term security of the United States, while 47 percent said it has. It was the first time a majority of Americans disagreed with the central notion Bush has offered to build support for war: that the fight there will make Americans safer from terrorists at home. In late 2003, 62 percent thought the Iraq war aided U.S. security, and three months ago 52 percent thought so.
Overall, more than half -- 52 percent -- disapprove of how Bush is handling his job, the highest of his presidency. A somewhat larger majority -- 56 percent -- disapproved of Republicans in Congress, and an identical proportion disapproved of Democrats.
There were signs, however, that Bush and Republicans in Congress were receiving more of the blame for the recent standoffs over such issues as Bush's judicial nominees and Social Security. Six in 10 respondents said Bush and GOP leaders are not making good progress on the nation's problems; of those, 67 percent blamed the president and Republicans while 13 percent blamed congressional Democrats. For the first time, a majority, 55 percent, also said Bush has done more to divide the country than to unite it.
The surge in violence in Iraq since the new government took control -- 80 U.S. troops and more than 700 Iraqis died in May alone amid a rash of bombings -- has been accompanied by rising gloom about the overall fight against terrorists. By 50 percent to 49 percent, Americans approved of the way Bush is handling the campaign against terrorism, down from 56 percent approval in April, equaling the lowest rating he has earned on the issue that has consistently been his core strength with the public.
The dissipating support for the Iraq war is of potential military concern, because, as Marine Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis wrote in a note to his troops as he led them back into Iraq in February 2004, "our friendly strategic center of gravity is the will of the American people."
Some authorities on war and public opinion said the figures indicate that pessimism about the war in Iraq has reached a dangerous level. "It appears that Americans are coming to the realization that the war in Iraq is not being won and may well prove unwinnable," said retired Army Col. Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor at Boston University. "That conclusion bleeds over into a conviction that it may not have been necessary in the first place."
That is the view of poll respondent Margaret Boudreaux, 63, a casino worker living in Oakdale, La. "I don't think it's going well -- there's too much killing," she said, worrying that the Iraq invasion could move more enemies to violence. "I think that some of the people, if they could, would get revenge for what we've done."
"You hear a lot about Saddam but nothing about Osama bin Laden. I don't think he [Bush] does enough to deal with the problems of terrorism. . . . He's done a lot of talking, but we haven't seen real changes," said another poll respondent, Kathy Goyette, 54, a San Diego nurse. "People are getting through airport security with things that are unbelievable. . . . I don't think he learned from 9/11."
While Bush has shelved his routine speeches about terrorism, and Congress has turned to domestic issues, fear of terrorism has receded from the public consciousness. Only 12 percent called it the nation's top priority, behind the economy, Iraq, health care and Social Security.
The drop in Bush's approval ratings on fighting terrorism came disproportionately from political independents. In March, 63 percent of independents approved of Bush's job combating terrorism. By April this had fallen to 54 percent. And in this weekend's survey, 40 percent gave him good marks.
The poll suggests that views on the Iraq war's impact also remain highly partisan. Three in four Republicans said the Iraq invasion has boosted domestic security, while three in four Democrats said it has not. Political independents lean negative on the issue: About six in 10 said the war has not made Americans safer.
Overall, Bush's 48 percent job approval rating was essentially unchanged from the 47 percent rating he received in a late-April poll. And there was growth in the proportion of people who said the economy was doing well: 44 percent, up from 37 percent in April.
But the public took a generally gloomy view of the White House and Congress. A plurality said Bush is doing worse in his second term than in his first, and 58 percent said he is not concentrating on the things that matter most to them -- the worst showing Bush has had in this measure in Post-ABC polls.
Congress fared no better. The proportion of the public disapproving of the legislative body was at its highest since late 1998, during President Bill Clinton's impeachment. More people said they would look at a candidate other than their sitting representative than at any point in nearly eight years. For the first time since April 2001, Democrats (46 percent) were trusted more than Republicans (41 percent) to cope with the nation's problems. But at the same time, favorability ratings for the Democratic Party, at 51 percent, tied their all-time low.
A total of 1,002 randomly selected adults were interviewed by telephone June 2 to 5 for this Post-ABC News poll. The margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus three percentage points.
The poll also found disapproval or division when it came to Bush's performance on several other recent, high-profile issues. One-third of those surveyed approved of the way Bush is handling federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, while 55 percent disapproved. The public was divided on the president's handling of judicial nominations, with 46 percent approving and 44 percent disapproving. And half said they were opposed to drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a proposal backed by Bush and being debated in Congress.
But the most striking trend identified by the survey was the spreading impatience over Iraq and national security matters. While six in 10 were confident that the United States was not violating the rights of detainees at the military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Americans were more skeptical that the government is protecting the rights of U.S. citizens at home. Only half said Americans' rights were being adequately protected, down from 69 percent in September 2003.
James Burk, a sociologist at Texas A&M University, said disillusionment about Iraq may have grown to the point that policymakers will have difficulty reversing it. "People all across the country know people in Iraq [so] there's a direct connection to the war," he said. Burk sees a "disjuncture" between upbeat administration rhetoric and realities the public perceives. "These data suggest we will soon reach the point, if we haven't yet reached the point, where that kind of language will seem too out of touch."
Polling director Richard Morin contributed to this report.