By Dan Balz and Richard Morin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 20, 2005
President Bush's approval rating has surged in recent weeks, reversing what had been an extended period of decline, with Americans now expressing renewed optimism about the future of democracy in Iraq, the campaign against terrorism and the U.S. economy, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News Poll.
Bush's overall approval rating rose to 47 percent, from 39 percent in early November, with 52 percent saying they disapprove of how he is handling his job. His approval rating on Iraq jumped 10 percentage points since early November, to 46 percent, while his rating on the economy rose 11 points, to 47 percent. A clear majority, 56 percent, said they approve of the way Bush is handling the fight against terrorism -- a traditional strong point in his reputation that nonetheless had flagged to 48 percent in the November poll.
The marked improvement in Bush's fortunes comes after months of erosion in the president's political standing that tracked a series of problems afflicting his administration. The most significant was the continuing violence and mounting U.S. casualties in Iraq, but high gasoline prices and the federal government's slow response to Hurricane Katrina also caused increasing numbers of Americans to register doubts about Bush's leadership.
The Post-ABC News poll suggests that the massive turnout in last week's elections in Iraq, coupled with a public relations offensive in which the president delivered five speeches and held one news conference in 19 days, have delivered a substantial year-end dividend to a president badly in need of good news.
Bush's pre-Christmas rebound was fueled largely by a sharp increase in support among his core supporters. In the past month, the proportion of Republicans approving of the president's performance rose nine percentage points, to 87 percent. And among conservatives, three in four said Bush was doing a good job, up 12 points from November. Among Democrats, independents and moderates Bush's support remained unchanged or increased only modestly.
Bush is still not in robust political health, with more Americans still disapproving of how he is handling the presidency, Iraq and the economy than approving. Those surveyed have a somewhat more positive view of whether Bush is a strong leader and whether he is honest and trustworthy than they did earlier in the fall, but Americans remain sharply divided on those presidential traits. On some key domestic issues, including immigration, Americans remain highly negative about the Bush presidency.
The other cautionary note for the administration is that Bush's approval ratings and public optimism about Iraq have spiked in the past after instances of positive news, such as the capture of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein or the election in January of this year, only to recede later. But the gains in the latest poll represent a larger one-time jump than on previous occasions of favorable news from Iraq. Currently, 54 percent say they are optimistic about the situation in Iraq, up from 46 percent a year ago.
The year-end burst of optimism has extended to Congress as well, although not to the same degree. In the Post-ABC News poll, 43 percent said they approved of how Congress is doing its job, up from 37 percent in November, whereas 53 percent disapproved. Those surveyed were more favorably inclined toward their own representatives, with 65 percent saying they approved of how their representative is doing his or her job.
The improvement in Congress's standing, however, has not been enough to wipe out what had been a substantial advantage for the Democrats in which party Americans trust to handle the country's biggest issues. Democrats still hold a five-percentage-point advantage (47 to 42 percent) on that measure, although in early November they enjoyed a 12-point advantage. On three major issues -- Iraq, government ethics and standing up to lobbyists and special interests -- the public still trusts Democrats over Republicans.
The findings in the new poll are based on telephone interviews with 1,003 randomly selected adults, taken between last Thursday and Sunday. The interviewing covered the period immediately after last week's Iraqi election but was completed before the president's nationally televised address on Sunday night. The margin of sampling error for the poll is plus or minus three percentage points.
The administration's strategy over the past month has been to move the Iraq debate past the question of whether it was right or wrong to go to war in March 2003 to the question of Iraq's future. The administration also sought to rebut arguments from a growing number of Democrats that the president should articulate a more precise strategy for drawing down the 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq or withdrawing them immediately. In both cases, Bush's responses appear to be resonating with a significant number of people.
Slightly more than half of the country (52 percent) continues to believe the war was not worth fighting, according to the new poll, although the proportion who said it was rose seven points, to 46 percent. But a majority now believe the war has contributed positively to the long-term security of the country, after dipping below 50 percent during the late summer and fall.
Where Bush has made no progress, despite his five speeches, is in convincing Americans that he has a clear plan for success, with almost three in five saying they do not believe he does.
Sixty percent said the United States is making significant progress in restoring civil order in Iraq, a 26-point increase since November, and 65 percent said the United States is making significant progress in establishing a democratic government there. Almost three in four (71 percent) said last week's election brought the country closer to the day when U.S. forces can be withdrawn.
More than half the country (52 percent) said they favor decreasing the number of troops in Iraq, a five-percentage-point increase since early November. But far fewer of those anxious to bring troops home are calling for a speedy exit. Just 12 percent of those surveyed said they favor immediate withdrawal, down from 18 percent in November, whereas 40 percent said they favor a gradual withdrawal, up from 29 percent in November. Just over a third said they favor keeping troop levels where they are now.
A solid majority (60 percent) agree with Bush on his opposition to setting a timetable for withdrawing forces, whereas 31 percent would like to see all U.S. troops removed by the end of next year. The poll also found Americans slightly more receptive to a candidate for Congress next year who opposes a timetable than to one who supports a timetable.
Americans still express doubts about aspects of Bush's handling of Iraq. Sixty percent said they do not believe he has adequately explained why the United States is in Iraq, and almost the same percentage said the administration does not have a clear plan for success there. But even more Americans (74 percent) said the Democrats in Congress do not have a plan either.