By Richard Morin and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 4, 2005
For the first time in his presidency a majority of Americans question the integrity of President Bush, and growing doubts about his leadership have left him with record negative ratings on the economy, Iraq and even the war on terrorism, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows.
On almost every key measure of presidential character and performance, the survey found that Bush has never been less popular with the American people. Currently 39 percent approve of the job he is doing as president, while 60 percent disapprove of his performance in office -- the highest level of disapproval ever recorded for Bush in Post-ABC polls.
Virtually the only possible bright spot for Bush in the survey was generally favorable, if not quite enthusiastic, early reaction to his latest Supreme Court nominee, Samuel A. Alito Jr. Half of Americans say Alito should be confirmed by the Senate, and less than a third view him as too conservative, the poll found.
Overall, the survey underscores how several pillars of Bush's presidency have begun to crumble under the combined weight of events and White House mistakes. Bush's approval ratings have been in decline for months, but on issues of personal trust, honesty and values, Bush has suffered some of his most notable declines. Moreover, Bush has always retained majority support on his handling of the U.S. campaign against terrorism -- until now, when 51 percent have registered disapproval.
The CIA leak case has apparently contributed to a withering decline in how Americans view Bush personally. The survey found that 40 percent now view him as honest and trustworthy -- a 13 percentage point drop in the past 18 months. Nearly 6 in 10 -- 58 percent -- said they have doubts about Bush's honesty, the first time in his presidency that more than half the country has questioned his personal integrity.
The indictment Friday of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, in the CIA leak case added to the burden of an administration already reeling from a failed Supreme Court nomination, public dissatisfaction with the economy and continued bloodshed in Iraq. According to the survey, 52 percent say the charges against Libby signal the presence of deeper ethical wrongdoing in the administration. Half believe White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, the president's top political hand, also did something wrong in the case -- about 6 in 10 say Rove should resign.
Beyond the leak case, Americans give the administration low scores on ethics, according to the survey, with 67 percent rating the administration negatively on handling ethical matters, while just 32 percent give the administration positive marks. Four in 10 -- 43 percent -- say the level of ethics and honesty in the federal government has fallen during Bush's presidency, while 17 percent say it has risen.
Faced with its cascade of recent setbacks, the White House is hoping the latest court nomination can rally disaffected conservatives and score the president a victory akin to the one he enjoyed in the nomination of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. Alito begins the confirmation process with the support of 49 percent of the public, while 29 percent say he should not be confirmed, the poll found. One in 5 Americans -- 22 percent -- did not yet know enough about him to make a judgment.
The dissatisfaction with Bush flows in part out of broad concerns about the overall direction of the country. Nearly 7 in 10 -- 68 percent -- believe the country is seriously off course, while only 30 percent are optimistic, the lowest level in more than nine years. Only 3 in 10 express high levels of confidence in Bush, while half say they have little or no confidence in this administration.
Just 35 percent of those surveyed rated the economy as either excellent or good, with 65 percent describing it as not so good or poor. Although the government reported last week that gross domestic product rose 3.8 percent in the last quarter, despite the effects of Hurricane Katrina, 29 percent of those surveyed said they regard the economy as poor, the highest recorded during Bush's presidency.
Attitudes toward Bush are sharply polarized by party, as they have been throughout his presidency. Almost 8 in 10 -- 78 percent -- of Republicans support the president, while just 11 percent of Democrats rate him positively. Republicans long have been the key to Bush's overall strength, but Bush has suffered some defections since the beginning of the year, when 91 percent approved of the way he was handling his job.
Among independents, Bush's approval has plummeted since the beginning of the year. In the latest poll, 33 percent of independents approved of his performance, while 66 percent disapproved. In January, independents were evenly divided, with 49 percent approving and an equal percentage disapproving.
The intensity of Bush's support has changed since his reelection a year ago, with opponents deepening their hostility toward the administration. In the latest survey, 47 percent said they strongly disapprove of the way he was performing in office, compared with 35 percent who expressed strong disapproval in January. At the same time, the percentage who say they strongly approve of his performance has fallen from 33 percent last January to 20 percent today.
Iraq remains a significant drag on Bush's presidency, with dissatisfaction over the situation there continuing to grow and with suspicion rising over whether administration officials misled the country in the run-up to the invasion more than two years ago.
Nearly two-thirds disapprove of the way Bush is handling the situation there, while barely a third approve, a new low. Six in 10 now believe the United States was wrong to invade Iraq, a seven-point increase in just over two months, with almost half the country saying they strongly believe it was wrong.
About 3 in 4 -- 73 percent -- say there have been an unacceptable level of casualties in Iraq. More than half -- 52 percent -- say the war with Iraq has not contributed to the long-term security of the United States.
The same percentage -- 52 percent -- says the United States should keep its military forces in Iraq until civil order is restored, and only about 1 in 5 -- 18 percent -- say the United States should withdraw its forces immediately. In the week after U.S. deaths in Iraq passed the 2,000 mark, a majority of those surveyed -- 55 percent -- said the United States is not making significant progress toward stabilizing the country.
The war has taken a toll on the administration's credibility: A clear majority -- 55 percent -- now says the administration deliberately misled the country in making its case for war with Iraq -- a conflict that an even larger majority say is not worth the cost.
The president's handling of terrorism was widely regarded among strategists as the key to his winning a second term last year. But questions about Bush's effectiveness on other fronts have also depreciated this asset. His 48 percent approval now compares with 61 percent approval on this issue at the time of his second inauguration, down from a 2004 high of 66 percent.
Bush also set new lows in the latest Post-ABC News poll for his management of the economy, where disapproval topped 60 percent for the first time in his presidency. And 6 in 10 are critical of the way Bush is dealing with health care -- a double-digit increase since March. On gasoline prices, Bush's numbers have increased slightly over the past two months but still remain highly negative, with just 26 percent rating him positively.
The survey suggests a rapidly widening gulf between Bush and the American people. Two in 3 say Bush does not understand the problems of people like them, a 10 percentage point increase since January.
Nearly 6 in 10 -- 58 percent -- doubt Bush shares their values, while 40 percent say he does, another new low for this president. For the first time since he took office, fewer than half -- 47 percent -- said Bush is a strong leader, and Americans divided equally over whether Bush can be trusted in a crisis.
Told of the poll results, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said Bush will rally support through such issues as education reform, changes to the tax code, and a new energy strategy to show the public that he "will continue to push for changes in our government to serve the American people."
A total of 1,202 randomly selected adults were interviewed Oct. 30-Nov. 2 for this survey. Margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus three percentage points.
Assistant polling director Claudia Deane contributed to this report.