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A Growing Public Restlessness

By David S. Broder
Sunday, June 12, 2005

The number 58 appears frequently in the latest Post-ABC News poll, sending a clear warning signal to President Bush and the Republicans.

The June survey found that 58 percent of its 1,002 respondents now disapprove of the way Bush is handling both the economy and the situation in Iraq. The same number now believe that, weighing the costs and the benefits to the United States, the war was not worth fighting. And the same number, when asked about their own and the president's priorities, say that Bush is mainly concentrating on things that are not important to them personally.

The individual ratings for the president are among the worst since he took office. Support for the war is the lowest yet recorded in this poll. Never before have Bush's priorities been as far out of kilter with public opinion.

There's not much good news for the president in the rest of this poll or in a separate survey taken a couple of weeks earlier by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. The two surveys put Bush's overall job disapproval scores at 50 percent and 52 percent -- the worst ratings in a long series of polls.

Five months into his second term, the storm signals are clearly flying. Were this the Clinton administration, it would be safe to assume that the man in the Oval Office would be badgering his political advisers for ideas on how to halt the decline. But Bush prides himself on pushing ahead, whatever the obstacles, and there are no signals that he is about to change course on any of his major policies.

But pushing on leaves him vulnerable to events that he cannot control. That is most obviously the case in Iraq, where the continuing violence clearly has sapped support for his decision to go to war. Seventy-three percent in the Post-ABC poll now say the military casualties in Iraq have become unacceptable. That number has doubled since the spring of 2003.

For the first time in this survey, a majority of respondents -- 52 percent -- said the war in Iraq has not contributed to the long-term security of the United States. But at this point Bush has no choice but to play out his hand. Withdrawal is not an option, and he is limited on how fast he can spur Iraqis to meet their security needs or complete the construction of their government.

But Iraq is only in second place when it comes to the public's priorities. The No. 1 concern is the economy and jobs.

And here is where Bush ought to be considering a new game plan. Although Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan declared the economy to be "on a reasonably firm footing" the other day, six out of 10 of those in the Pew survey said jobs are hard to find in their local areas -- including almost half of those with household incomes over $75,000. Three out of 10 said they did not have enough money last year to pay for their medical and health care needs.

Bush has had relatively little to say about these economic anxieties. His economic initiatives, including the plea to make past tax cuts permanent, would mainly benefit the affluent. Instead, Bush has devoted his energies to selling a Social Security reform that the public views with deep suspicion. By a 2 to 1 margin, it thinks Bush's proposals would not improve the long-run financial stability of Social Security, and nearly as many people think they would reduce the retirement income most seniors will receive.

On economic policy and Social Security, it may be up to Republicans in Congress to give voice to the policy message that Bush has either ignored or mishandled so far. And they have reason to do so. Seventeen months before the midterm elections, Democrats have, for the first time since April 2001, gained a lead, of five points, over Republicans as the party that respondents say will do a better job coping with the main problems facing the country.

Newt Gingrich, who has been touring the country to promote his new novel, told me last week that he sees "a lot of parallels between the restiveness of European voters," who have handed losses to the ruling parties in France, Germany, the Netherlands and Britain, "and what I feel when I'm on the road.

"If Ford and General Motors are rated as junk bonds and United Airlines can't pay its pensioners," the former Republican speaker said, "people feel there is something wrong. Both parties are hurt, but the governing party is at greater risk."

davidbroder@washpost.com

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