A souring economy, the federal budget impasse and second thoughts about the U.S. troop deployment in the Persian Gulf have pushed public confidence in the condition of the country to its lowest level in nearly two decades, according to a Washington Post-ABC News Poll.

President Bush's popularity is in a nosedive. The poll found that 56 percent of those questioned approved of the job he is doing as president -- the lowest point of his presidency and 19 points lower than it had been a month before.

Even with this steep drop, however, Bush's current level of popularity remains higher than the average -- roughly 50 percent -- for post-World War II presidents just before a midterm election.

More ominously for the incumbent administration, the Post-ABC survey also found that nearly eight out of 10 persons questioned -- 79 percent -- said the country was "pretty seriously off on the wrong track." Only 19 percent said the country was headed in the right direction, about half the percentage that expressed a similarly positive view just a month ago.

That was the most pessimistic reading of the overall national mood since The Post and ABC began asking the question in 1982. It also marked the most negative result found in a major poll since 1974, when the Arab oil embargo and the Watergate crisis gripped the country.

Pollster Robert M. Teeter, whose private surveys for the Republican National Committee have found a similar decline in the president's job approval rating, predicted that Bush's abrupt and steep fall in public approval will soon halt. "We will get a budget agreement and the pattern {of declining approval} will resolve itself," he said.

Others said the decline is more serious for Bush because it is connected to larger concerns about the country. "What this shows is that the president's popularity is broad but shallow," said Duke University political scientist James David Barber. He added: "My guess is that the Iraqi crisis got people to turn off their kids' Nintendos and pay attention to the news, and now that they're paying attention, they're noticing a whole lot of stories they don't like -- such as the coming recession and the budget-deficit impasse."

Several other media polls taken in the past week reported a similar 15- to 20-percentage-point drop in the president's approval rating since August.

According to the Post-ABC poll, the percentage of Americans who believe the economy is worsening increased from 64 percent to 77 percent in the past month. The proportion who disapprove of the way Bush is handling the economy also increased, from 41 percent to a record high of 58 percent in just over a month.

At the same time, public support for U.S. involvement in the Persian Gulf has fallen sharply.

The latest Post-ABC poll found that 60 percent of those questioned said the United States should keep military forces in the gulf region until Iraq withdraws its troops from Kuwait. Just five weeks ago, 75 percent favored keeping troops in the gulf to force Iraq out of Kuwait.

Support for Bush's handling of the gulf crisis has dropped from 78 percent in September to 64 percent in the most recent survey. And for the first time, a majority of Americans now doubt that the economic embargo -- the centerpiece of the administration's efforts to force Iraq to abandon Kuwait -- will work.

"I think it was the right move," said Maria Lopez, a computer analyst from Brooklyn, of deployment in the gulf, "but nothing's happening. We boycott this and we boycott that, but nothing happens. Do something. Go ahead and do something."

Post-ABC surveys over the past 10 months show a consistent downward spiral in optimism throughout the year, though the recent 17-percentage-point decline represented the largest single drop in the past 10 months.

While the precipitous drop in public confidence has occurred among all demographic groups, it has been sharpest among those most vulnerable to bad economic times: lower income and less well-educated Americans. For example, among those with household incomes of less than $20,000 a year, the percentage saying the country was headed in the right direction fell from 41 percent in January to 13 percent in the most recent survey.

Bush's approval rating, which peaked at 79 percent in January's Post-ABC News poll, following the Panama invasion, has undergone the steepest decline among the elderly and blacks -- traditional bulwarks of the Democratic Party coalition.

Among those over age 60, approval for Bush's job performance dropped from 77 percent in January to 45 percent in the most recent poll.

Among blacks, his ratings fell from 74 percent to 37 percent.

If the budget impasse continues, Bush's numbers could go lower. The Post-ABC News poll found that 59 percent disapproved of his threat to halt non-essential government operations, while 39 percent approved.

Both Bush and Congress continue to receive bad marks for the budget stalemate, with six out of 10 persons questioned in the latest poll disapproving of the way Bush and congressional Democrats have handled the deficit.

"It doesn't seem like anything is working any more," said Jeanne Hawkins, 63, a homemaker in Los Angeles. "Congress doesn't do its job and the president doesn't work with Congress."

The survey also found that Americans remain angry at Congress but not at their member of Congress, raising questions about whether the public's worsening views of House and Senate members will mature into anti-incumbent fever by Nov. 6.

Slightly more than six out of 10 respondents disapproved of the job that Congress was doing, a record high in a Post-ABC poll. Yet just as many of those interviewed -- 64 percent -- approved of the job their own representative was doing. A total of 1,006 adults nationwide were interviewed for this survey. Margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Staff writer Ann Devroy, researcher Bruce Brown and polling analyst Sharon Warden contributed to this report.

Q. Do you think things in this country are generally going in the right direction, or do you feel things have gotten pretty seriously off on the wrong track?

...................OCTOBER 14

Right direction..........19%

Wrong direction...........79

BREAKDOWN OF THOSE WHO SAID THE COUNTRY IS GENERALLY GOING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION

............January...October

Gender

Men...........56%........24%

Women.........42..........15

Age

18-30.........51%........20%

31-44.........52..........24

45-60.........46......... 13

61+...........41..........17

Race

Whites........50%........20%

Blacks........37..........12

Income

$12,000 or

less............42%.......13%

12,000-19,999...40.........13

20,000-29,999...44.........13

30,000-49,999...55.........22

50,000 or more..60.........28

Region

East...........46%........16%

Midwest........48..........18

South..........50..........18

West...........48..........26

Party

Democrats......39%........13%

Republicans....59..........28

Independents...49..........19

Ideology

Liberal........42%........14%

Moderate.......54..........23

Conservative...48..........18

Class

Middle Class...52%........25%

Working Class..45..........14

Education

Non-high school

graduate.......37%........ 8%

High school

graduate.......50..........17

Some college...53..........28

BREAKDOWN OF THOSE WHO SAID THEY APPROVE OF THE WAY BAUSH IS HANDLING HIS JOB AS PRESIDENT

Q. Do you approve or disapprove of the way George Bush is handLing his job as president?

...............October 14

Approve....... ..56%

Disapprove.......40

Gender................Jan.......Oct 14

men ...................80% ........57%

Women .................78..........56

Age

18-30..................80%.........61%

31-44..................79...........62

45-60..................79...........56

61+....................77...........45

Race

Whites................80%.........60%

Blacks................74...........37

Income

$12,000 or less ......73%........37%

12,000-19,999.........84.........56

20,000-29,999.........77.........55

30,000-49,999.........82.........65

50,000 or more .......81.........64

Region

East.................75%........57%

Midwest..............76.........50

South................83.........58

West.................82.........62

Party

Democrats...........66%........42%

Republicans.........78.........76

Independents........96.........48

Ideology

Liberal.............66%.......49%

Moderate............84........59

Conservative........86........61

Class

Middle Class........80%.......63%

Working Class.......79........51

Education

Non-high school

graduate..............74%........35%

High school graduate...84........59

Some college...........77........67

Percentage no opinion not shown; numbers may not total to 100 due to rounding. January figures are based on telephone interviews with 1,518 adults conducted nationally Jan. 11-16. October results are based on interviews with 1,008 adults conducted nationally Oct. 10-14. Margin of sampling error for the January survey is plus or minus 3 percentage points and slightly larger for the most recent poll. Margin of sampling is, however, only one of many sources interviewing for both surveys was conducted by Chilton Research of Radnor, Pa.