Public approval of President Bush's handling of the conflict in Iraq has dropped to its lowest point with growing fears that the United States is bogged down and rising criticism of Bush's handling of the prison abuse scandal, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News Poll.
Support for Bush on virtually every aspect of the Iraq conflict has declined in the past month as the administration has battled insurgents and grappled with the expanding investigation into the treatment of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison.
The poll underscored the political challenges that confronted Bush as he went on national television last night to defend his policy and outline the steps that will lead to a transfer of governing authority to a new Iraqi government on June 30.
Bush's overall job approval rating declined to 47 percent, the lowest the Post-ABC News polls have recorded since he took office, with 50 percent saying they disapprove. Just four in 10 Americans gave the president positive marks for his handling of Iraq, the lowest since he launched the conflict in March 2003.
On the question of whether U.S. forces should remain in Iraq until that country is stabilized or withdraw to avoid further casualties, 58 percent said they favored staying there, down from 66 percent last month. The percentage favoring a troop withdrawal reached 40 percent, up 7 percentage points in the past month.
Despite Bush's declining approval ratings, he runs even when pitted against Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), his Democratic challenger. Asked how they would vote if the election were held today, 46 percent of registered voters said Bush, 46 percent said Kerry and 4 percent said independent Ralph Nader. Without Nader factored into the competition, Kerry led Bush 49 percent to 47 percent. A month ago, Bush led Kerry 48 to 43 percent with Nader at 6 percent.
When matched against Kerry on issues of national security and terrorism, Bush was seen as a stronger leader and more reliable in keeping the country safe and more trusted in dealing with a national crisis. Bush also bested Kerry on who is better equipped to deal with Iraq and the war on terrorism, although Bush's margins have declined in the past month.
Bush's political standing has been weakened by an erosion in support among independents and by signs of potential disaffection among his typically rock-solid Republican base. Democrats continue to give the president low marks across the board.
A month ago Bush's job approval rating stood at 51 percent, and virtually all of the decline since then is attributable to a drop of 7 percentage points among Republicans. Just 20 percent of Democrats and 46 percent of independents approve of how he is handling the presidency.
On Iraq, a majority of Democrats (87 percent) and independents (58 percent) gave Bush negative marks. Among members of his party, the president's support, while strong, declined 8 percentage points over the last month, to 75 percent.
On the issue of withdrawing U.S. forces, 53 percent of Democrats favored withdrawal, which puts them at odds with Kerry, while more than four in 10 independents and one-fifth of Republicans said they preferred getting out to staying indefinitely. The number of independents and Republicans favoring withdrawal rose about 10 percentage points each in the past month.
The president received higher marks for managing the war on terrorism, although the 58 percent approval rating in the new poll marked the first time Bush has dropped below 60 percent on that question since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Bush's approval rating on Iraq is now lower than his economic approval rating: Forty-four percent said they approved of how he has handled the economy, compared with 54 percent who disapproved. The last two employment reports have shown significant new job creation, and although Bush's economic ratings remain negative, they are not as low as in March.
Rising gasoline prices represent a potential economic problem for Bush. Almost two in three Americans said rising prices have caused some kind of financial hardship, but fewer than two in five said the hardship was serious. Those surveyed apportioned the blame relatively evenly among the administration, U.S. oil companies and the oil-producing countries.
A majority of those surveyed also expressed optimism that the situation in Iraq will be better a year from now, but in all other respects, the public expressed pessimism about the U.S. mission there.
Those surveyed remained evenly divided over whether the war in Iraq has been worth the cost, with 48 percent saying it was and 50 percent saying it was not. But 65 percent said they believe the United States is bogged down there, 57 percent said the United States is not making significant progress in establishing a democratic government and 58 percent said Bush does not have a clear plan for Iraq.
Disapproval of Bush's handling of the prisoner-abuse scandal rose dramatically in the past month, with 57 percent giving him negative marks and 36 percent giving him positive marks. A month ago, as the scandal was first unfolding, a plurality (48 percent to 35 percent) said they approved of the way he was dealing with it. Disapproval jumped sharply among independents and Republicans as well as among Democrats. Three in five independents give Bush negative marks on the prison scandal as do almost one-third of Republicans, and three-quarters of all Democrats.
When asked to compare Bush and Kerry, those surveyed said they had more confidence in Kerry on economic issues and more confidence in Bush on national security issues. Bush's greatest advantage came in the war on terrorism, where he led Kerry by 52 percent to 39 percent. On Iraq, Bush led 48 percent to 42 percent, while on the economy, Kerry led 48 percent to 43 percent. In all cases, the public viewed Bush less favorably than in the Post-ABC poll of a month ago.
Those surveyed also see Bush as a strong leader, with 62 percent saying that characterization fit the president to 52 percent who said it applied to Kerry. Three in five said Bush can be trusted in a crisis, while 46 percent said Kerry could be trusted. A bare majority (52 percent) said Bush has made the country safer; 39 percent said Kerry will do so if he is elected.
Three in four said they see Bush as a politician who takes a position and sticks to it; four in 10 said the same of Kerry. On the other hand, while 49 percent said Bush is willing to listen to different points of view, 69 percent said that of Kerry. Kerry scored higher than Bush on which one understands the problems of ordinary Americans.
On the question of which candidate shares their values, the public was closely divided -- 49 percent said Bush shared their values while 48 percent said the same of Kerry, a finding that reflects the divided electorate.
A total of 1,005 randomly selected adults were interviewed May 20-23. The margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Assistant polling director Claudia Deane contributed to this report.