By Richard Morin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 12, 2005 5:31 PM
President Bush's public standing has hit record lows amid broad support for an independent investigation of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina and calls for postponing congressional action on $70 billion in proposed tax cuts to help pay for storm recovery, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
President Bush's overall job approval rating now stands at 42 percent, the lowest of his presidency and down three points since Hurricane Katrina savaged the Gulf Coast two weeks ago. Fifty-seven percent disapprove of Bush's performance, a double-digit increase since January.
Bush's handling of Iraq and terrorism also have never been lower, according to the poll. Thirty-eight percent approve of the way Bush is handling the situation in Iraq and half the country now approve of the way Bush is handling the campaign against terrorism.
A clear majority--54 percent -- now disapprove of the way Bush is handling the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Even some members of Bush's own party appear to have lost faith in their leader: The president's overall approval rating among Republicans has declined from 91 percent in January to 78 percent in the latest poll. Overall, barely half the country now characterize Bush as a "strong leader" -- down 12 points since May of last year. And the percent who say he can be "trusted in a crisis" likewise has fallen from 60 percent to 49 percent now.
Together, the poll portrays an increasingly unpopular president who is under siege at home and abroad. It also suggests that the public is growing impatient with an administration that once seemed so sure-footed but now seems unable to deal effectively with crises at home and abroad.
Attitudes toward Bush and the government's overall response to Hurricane Katrina fracture along the twin fault lines of race and partisanship. Nearly three in four whites doubted the federal government would have responded more quickly to those trapped in New Orleans if they had been wealthier and white rather than poorer and black. But an equal share of blacks disagreed, saying help would have come sooner if the victims had been more affluent whites.
More than six in 10 blacks--63 percent--said the problems with the hurricane relief effort are an indication of continuing racial inequity in this country--a view rejected by more than seven in 10 whites.
While there is a bipartisan consensus on some issues, on others Americans continue to view the federal response to the hurricane through a partisan lens. More than six in 10 Americans are critical of the federal government response to the storm, including 79 percent of all Democrats and 41 percent Republicans.
Americans also split along party lines over President Bush's handling of the crisis. According to the poll, fewer than half--45 percent--approve of Bush's performance while 50 percent disapprove, including three quarters of all Democrats, but only one in four Republicans. Overall, fewer than half--45--percent blamed Bush for the initially sluggish federal response to the storm, including 61 percent of all Democrats but only 21 percent of Republicans. Slightly more than half--54 percent--said the president was not to blame, including a strong majority of Republicans but barely a third of Democrats.
The survey found that 76 percent of the public favors an investigation of federal storm response efforts by an independent commission similar to the one that probed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The proposal drew strong bipartisan support: 64 percent of all Republicans and 83 percent of Democrats favored creating the independent panel.
Republican leaders in Congress already have announced plans for a congressional inquiry into the federal storm response--a probe that seven in 10 Americans fear will "get bogged down in partisan politics," according to the poll.
In the aftermath of what likely will be the most costly natural disaster in U.S. history, six in 10 want lawmakers to delay action on pending legislation that would cut federal taxes by an estimated $70 billion over the next five years. Those proposed cuts include eliminating the inheritance tax, a Bush priority that supporters now say faces an uncertain fate. Half of all Republicans joined with two-thirds of Democrat to support delaying proposed tax cuts. But Bush isn't the biggest loser in the post-Katrina blame game. A majority--57 percent--say state and local officials should be blamed for the problems, suggesting the White House has been at least partially successful in shifting fault away from Bush and the federal government. And half the public says the bigger problem is that people failed to take the storm warnings seriously, while nearly as many said the bigger problem was the failure of government to provide transportation to those in the path of the storm.
But Americans were even more suspicious of Democrats' motives. Six in 10 said that Democrats critical of Bush for his handling of the hurricane were just trying to use the disaster for political advantage while a third said Democrats were genuinely interested in finding out what went wrong. A third of all Democrats were suspicious of their leaders' motives, as well as eight in 10 Republicans and six in 10 independents.
About half said the Bush administration was willing to take responsibility for its actions in the aftermath of the storm but just as many said the White House was trying to duck responsibility for the problems.
As the first of billions of dollars in federal aid flows to the stricken region, a majority of Americans (54 percent) worry that the government may not be taking sufficient precautions to guard against waste and fraud.
Americans are mixed about the economy following Katrina. Half said they were optimistic about the country's economic prospects in the next year, while nearly as many said they were pessimistic.
The new poll found that Americans are divided over the best way to pay for the cleanup effort, now estimated to cost more than $100 billion. Four in 10--39 percent--say the government should cut federal spending, while 17 percent support increasing the federal budget deficit, now estimated to reach $500 billion this year. Another 16 percent would raise taxes. Only 4 percent said the country should finance reconstruction by pulling out of Iraq.
A total of 1, 200 randomly selected adults, including an oversample of 200 African-Americans, were interviewed Sept. 8-11 for this survey. Margin of sampling error for results based on the full sample is plus or minus 3 percentage points.