By Dan Balz and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 22, 2007 7:15 AM
President Bush will deliver his State of the Union address on Tuesday at the weakest point of his presidency, facing deep public dissatisfaction over his Iraq war policies and eroding confidence in his leadership, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
With a major confrontation between Congress and the president brewing over Iraq, Americans overwhelmingly oppose Bush's plan to send an additional 21,500 troops to the conflict. By wide margins, they prefer that congressional Democrats, who now hold majorities in both chambers, rather than the president, take the lead in setting the direction for the country.
Iraq dominates the national agenda, with 48 percent of Americans calling the war the single most important issue they want Bush and the Congress to deal with this year. No other issue rises out of single digits. The poll also found that the public trusts congressional Democrats over Bush to deal with the conflict by a margin of 60 percent to 33 percent.
The president will use his speech to try to rally public opinion behind the troop deployment plan, but during the past 10 days he has made no headway in changing public opinion. The Post-ABC poll shows that 65 percent of Americans oppose sending more troops to Iraq; it was 61 percent immediately after the president unveiled the plan on Jan. 10 in a nationally televised address.
The Senate plans to take up a nonbinding bipartisan resolution opposing the president's new plan for troop deployments. But many Democrats in both chambers advocate even stronger measures designed to block the deployment of the additional troops, including capping the number of troops at their levels of Jan. 1 or putting strings on the money for the new troops. They would have broad initial public support to do so: 59 percent of all Americans, including more than a quarter of Republicans, want Congress to try to block the president's plan to send more troops.
More broadly, Bush will be speaking on Tuesday night to a nation that is deeply pessimistic, with just 26 percent of Americans saying the country is heading in the right direction and 71 percent saying the country is seriously off track. That is the worst these ratings have been in more than a decade.
Bush's overall approval rating in the new poll is 33 percent, matching the lowest it has been in Post-ABC polls since he took office in 2001. Sixty-five percent say they disapprove. Equally telling is the finding that 51 percent of Americans now strongly disapprove of his performance in office, the worst rating of his presidency. Just 17 percent strongly approve of the way he is handling his job.
Only two presidents have had lower approval ratings on the eve of a State of the Union speech. Richard Nixon was at 26 percent in 1974, seven months before he resigned in disgrace because of the Watergate scandal. Harry S. Truman was at 23 percent in January 1952, driven down by public disapproval of the Korean conflict and his firing of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
Just 29 percent approve of Bush's handling of the Iraq war, which is only one percentage point off his career low recorded a month ago, and 70 percent disapprove. Similarly, Bush's approval rating on handling terrorism is at a near-low, with just 46 percent giving him positive marks and 52 percent negative.
Additional signs of Bush's weakened position come in responses to questions about his personal and leadership attributes. Forty percent describe Bush as honest and trustworthy, equaling the low point of his presidency. Barely a third think he understands the problems of people like themselves.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush generally received strongly positive marks on leadership and his ability to handle a crisis. But Hurricane Katrina and the botched federal response, on top of dissatisfaction over Iraq, badly damaged his image on both fronts, and the new poll finds him at another new low on those attributes.
Just 42 percent say he can be trusted in a crisis, with 56 percent saying he cannot -- the first time a majority has given him a negative rating on a crucial element of presidential leadership. Only 45 percent call him a strong leader, which is also the lowest mark of his presidency. His previous low, 47 percent, came two months after Katrina ravaged New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
But the negative assessments of the president continue to stem overwhelmingly from public attitudes about Iraq. Nearly two-thirds of Americans say it was a mistake to go to war there, the highest negative response since the war began. And 55 percent of Americans now say the president has not made the country safer, the first time a majority of the country has reached that conclusion.
Another first-time majority, 52 percent, would prefer to see U.S. forces withdrawn from Iraq to avoid further casualties rather than leaving them until civil order is restored. The poll did not ask about a timetable for such a withdrawal.
Many Americans see Bush falling short of many of the goals he has outlined for his Iraq policy. Just 28 percent say it has contributed to long-term peace and stability in the region, and only 36 percent think it has encouraged the spread of democracy to other Arab countries. At this point, the public is evenly divided on the question of whether the war has made the lives of Iraqi citizens better.
The poll also highlights a major disconnect between the priorities of the American people and the White House over Iraq policy. More than three in five said that it is better to seek a solution to the Iraq conflict through diplomatic and political means, but three in four said they believe Bush is relying mostly on military means.
The midterm elections brought Democratic majorities to the House and Senate, but so far that has had only a modest effect on public approval of the Congress. The Post-ABC News poll found that 43 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, compared to 50 percent who disapprove. On the eve of the elections in November, 36 percent said they approved, 60 percent disapproved.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) draws much more favorable marks than the president. A majority (54 percent) approves of the way she is handling her new job, with 25 percent disapproving and 21 percent undecided. That rating is better than that of former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) when he took power after the 1994 Republican landslide. In late January 1995, his approval rating stood at 40 percent.
Democrats generally receive positive marks from the public, at least relative to the president. By better than 2 to 1 (57 percent to 25 percent), Americans prefer Democrats to set the direction for the country. And by similar margins, the public trusts Democrats in Congress over Bush to deal not only with Iraq, but also with terrorism, the economy and the federal budget.
The Democrats' advantage on Iraq narrowed to an 11-point margin right after Bush's nationally televised speech outlining his new plan, but it has moved back in their direction in the intervening period.
Together, these Democratic advantages combine in the public's assessment that the Democrats in Congress are taking the stronger leadership role in Washington these days: 56 percent say so, while 36 percent think that Bush is. But another reason for this divide may be the Democrats' early pursuit of broadly popular legislation.
Nearly nine in 10 Americans in this poll support raising the federal minimum wage to $7.25 an hour (half of supporters would like it higher still), eight in 10 think Medicare should be able to negotiate prescription prices with drug companies, and a majority (55 percent) supports a loosening of restrictions of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. These were three of the six core components of the Democrats' legislative priorities for the first 100 hours of the new House session.
The Post-ABC News poll was conducted by telephone Jan. 16-19 among a random sample of 1,000 adults. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.