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Correction to This Article
An article and chart on President Bush's poll numbers in the July 25 A-section misreported the highest disapproval rating recorded in a Gallup poll for Harry S. Truman. Sixty-seven percent disapproved of Truman's job performance in January 1952, making him the most unpopular president in modern times, just surpassing Richard M. Nixon, whose worst disapproval rating was 66 percent.

Disfavor for Bush Hits Rare Heights

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By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 25, 2007

President Bush is a competitive guy. But this is one contest he would rather lose. With 18 months left in office, he is in the running for most unpopular president in the history of modern polling.

The latest Washington Post-ABC News survey shows that 65 percent of Americans disapprove of Bush's job performance, matching his all-time low.

In polls conducted by The Post or Gallup going back to 1938, only twice has a president exceeded that level of public animosity -- Harry S. Truman, who hit 67 percent during the Korean War, and Richard M. Nixon, who hit 66 percent four days before resigning.

The historic depth of Bush's public standing has whipsawed his White House, sapped his clout, drained his advisers, encouraged his enemies and jeopardized his legacy. Around the White House, aides make gallows-humor jokes about how they can alienate their remaining supporters -- at least those aides not heading for the door. Outside the White House, many former aides privately express anger and bitterness at their erstwhile colleagues, Bush and the fate of his presidency.

Bush has been so down for so long that some advisers maintain it no longer bothers them much. It can even, they say, be liberating. Seeking the best interpretation for the president's predicament, they argue that Bush can do what he thinks is right without regard to political cost, pointing to decisions to send more U.S. troops to Iraq and to commute the sentence of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff.

But the president's unpopularity has left the White House to play mostly defense for the remainder of his term. With his immigration overhaul proposal dead, Bush's principal legislative hopes are to save his No Child Left Behind education program and to fend off attempts to force him to change course in Iraq. The emerging strategy is to play off a Congress that is also deeply unpopular and to look strong by vetoing spending bills.

The president's low public standing has paralleled the disenchantment with the Iraq war, but some analysts said it goes beyond that, reflecting a broader unease with Bush's policies in a variety of areas. "It isn't just the Iraq war," said Shirley Anne Warshaw, a presidential scholar at Gettysburg College. "It's everything."

Some analysts believe that even many war supporters deserted him because of his plan to open the door to legal status for illegal immigrants. "You can do an unpopular war or you can do an unpopular immigration policy," said David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter. "Not both."

Yet Bush's political troubles seem to go beyond particular policies. Many presidents over the past 70 years have faced greater or more immediate crises without falling as far in the public mind -- Vietnam claimed far more American lives than Iraq, the Iranian hostage crisis made the United States look impotent, race riots and desegregation tore the country apart, the oil embargo forced drivers to wait for hours to fill up, the Soviets seemed to threaten the nation's survival.

"It's astonishing," said Pat Caddell, who was President Jimmy Carter's pollster. "It's hard to look at the situation today and say the country is absolutely 15 miles down in the hole. The economy's not that bad -- for some people it is, but not overall. Iraq is terribly handled, but it's not Vietnam; we're not losing 250 people a week. . . . We don't have that immediate crisis, yet the anxiety about the future is palpable. And the feeling about him is he's irrelevant to that. I think they've basically given up on him."

That may stem in part from the changing nature of society. When Caddell's boss was president, there were three major broadcast networks. Today cable news, talk radio and the Internet have made information far more available, while providing easy outlets for rage and polarization. Public disapproval of Bush is not only broad but deep; 52 percent of Americans "strongly" disapprove of his performance and 28 percent describe themselves as "angry."

"A lot of the commentary that comes out of the Internet world is very harsh," said Frank J. Donatelli, White House political director for Ronald Reagan. "That has a tendency to reinforce people's opinions and harden people's opinions."


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