By Jon Cohen and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
Most Americans see President Bush as intransigent on Iraq and prefer that the Democratic-controlled Congress make decisions about a possible withdrawal of U.S. forces, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
As the president and Congress spar over war policy, both receive negative marks from the public for their handling of the situation in Iraq. But by a large margin, Americans trust Democrats rather than the president to find a solution to a conflict that remains enormously unpopular. And more than six in 10 in the new poll said Congress should have the final say on when to bring the troops home.
The president has steadfastly asserted his power as commander in chief to make decisions about the war, but his posture is now viewed by majorities of Democrats, independents and even Republicans as too inflexible. Asked whether Bush is willing enough to change policies on Iraq, nearly eight in 10 Americans said no.
Since December, the percentage seeing Bush as too rigid has increased 12 points, with the most significant change among Republicans. Just after the 2006 midterm elections and the release of the 79-point plan from the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, 55 percent of Republicans thought Bush was willing enough to change course in Iraq; in this poll, 55 percent of Republicans said he is not.
Bush's overall approval rating equals its all-time low in Post-ABC News polls at 33 percent, with 65 percent disapproving. Fifty-two percent said they "strongly" disapprove of his job performance, the highest figure of his presidency and more than three times the 16 percent who strongly approve.
Three-quarters of Republicans approve of the way he is handling his job, but just one in 10 Democrats and three in 10 independents give him positive marks.
The war has been the single biggest drag on the president's approval ratings.
Thirty-one percent give him positive marks on handling the situation in Iraq, which is near his career low on the issue. The last time a majority approved of the president's handling of the war was in January 2004.
Even among those Americans who said they had served or had a close friend or relative who served in Iraq, 38 percent approve of Bush's handling of the conflict.
At the same time, Congress fares little better with the public on the war. Just 35 percent said they approve of the way congressional Democrats are handling the situation in Iraq, with 63 percent disapproving. Two-thirds of independents give the Democrats negative marks on the war.
The latest poll was conducted July 18 to 21 among a random sample of 1,125 adults, just after Senate Democrats failed to pass legislation that would set a timetable for the start of troop withdrawals from the war zone. The results have a three-percentage-point margin of sampling error.
Overall approval of Congress stands at 37 percent in the new poll, with the 60 percent disapproval rating equal to public dissatisfaction with the Republican-controlled Congress late last year. Congress's approval rating has declined over the past three months because self-identified Democrats have soured in their assessment.
Congressional Democrats still receive higher marks than their Republican counterparts for their performance, but independents give both parties equally negative reviews.
But when it comes to judging the president versus congressional Democrats on the issue of Iraq, the public stands with Congress. Fifty-five percent said they trust congressional Democrats on the war, compared with 32 percent who said they trust Bush. (Eleven percent of all respondents and 17 percent of independents said they trust "neither.") And by 2 to 1, Americans said Congress, rather than the president, should make the final decision about when to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq. Nearly three in 10 Republicans side with Congress over the president on this question.
Many would like Congress to assert itself on Iraq, and about half of poll respondents said congressional Democrats have done "too little" to get Bush to change his war policy. Democrats are especially eager for more action from their party's lawmakers: 61 percent of Democrats and 69 percent of liberal Democrats said not enough has been done to prod Bush on the issue.
The central challenge for legislators from both parties is that the deep schism in Congress over Iraq war policy mirrors a wide partisan divide on many questions about the situation there.
Overall attitudes about the conflict continue to be decidedly negative, with more than six in 10 saying that given the costs, the war was not worth fighting. Most Democrats and independents in the poll said the war was not worth fighting, but most Republicans continue to say it has been worth the costs.
And the broad disagreements between partisans are not isolated to previous decisions.
A narrow majority -- 55 percent -- support legislation that would set a deadline of next spring for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, but while that measure is backed by 72 percent of Democrats and six in 10 independents, only a quarter of Republicans are on board.
A Senate effort to append such a timeline to a defense authorization bill failed to get the requisite 60 votes in the Senate; it was defeated 52 to 47.
There is also no agreement across party lines on the timing of U.S. troop withdrawals. About six in 10 said forces should be withdrawn to avoid further casualties, even if civil order is not restored, and 56 percent want to decrease the forces in Iraq. Both figures are at new highs, but few Republicans agree with either position.
Even among Democrats, there is no consensus about the timing of any troop withdrawal. While three-quarters want to decrease the number of troops in Iraq, only a third advocate a complete, immediate withdrawal. There is even less support for that option among independents (15 percent) and Republicans (6 percent).
There is, however, more universal, bipartisan backing for several other proposals that have been floated, including changing the strategic mission from direct combat to training and support, instituting new rules on troop rest time, and reducing aid to the Iraqi government if it fails to meet certain benchmarks. Majorities across party lines support each of these potential policy shifts.
Few are confident that the Iraqi government has the ability to meet its commitments to restore civil order. But again partisan views diverge: 55 percent of Republicans are at least somewhat confident that the Iraqis will meet their benchmarks, an outlook shared by about three in 10 Democrats and independents.
And as for the new U.S. efforts to restore security in Iraq, most in the poll said the "surge" has not made much difference, and nearly two-thirds said that the additional troops will not improve the situation over the next few months.
This broad pessimism provides an early read that the public may not be as willing as some in Congress to suspend judgment about the strategy until Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, delivers his much-anticipated assessment in mid-September.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.