A majority of Americans say the indictment of senior White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby signals broader ethical problems in the Bush administration, and nearly half say the overall level of honesty and ethics in the federal government has fallen since President Bush took office, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News survey.
The poll, conducted Friday night and yesterday, found that 55 percent of the public believes the Libby case indicates wider problems "with ethical wrongdoing" in the White House, while 41 percent believes it was an "isolated incident." And by a 3 to 1 ratio, 46 percent to 15 percent, Americans say the level of honesty and ethics in the government has declined rather than risen under Bush.
In the aftermath of the latest crisis to confront the White House, Bush's overall job approval rating has fallen to 39 percent, the lowest of his presidency in Post-ABC polls. Barely a third of Americans -- 34 percent -- think Bush is doing a good job ensuring high ethics in government, which is slightly lower than President Bill Clinton's standing on this issue when he left office.
The survey also found that nearly seven in 10 Americans consider the charges against Libby to be serious. A majority -- 55 percent -- said the decision of Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald to bring charges against Libby was based on the facts of the case, while 30 percent said he was motivated by partisan politics.
"One thing you can't ever, ever do even if you're a regular person is lie to a grand jury," said Brad Morris, 48, a registered independent and a field representative for a lumber company who lives in Nashua, N.H. "But multiply that by a thousand times if you have power like [Libby had]. And if anybody wants to know why, ask Scooter. He's financially ruined; he'll be paying lawyers for the rest of his life."
Taken together, the findings represent a serious blow to a White House already reeling from the politically damaging effects of the slow government response to Hurricane Katrina, the continuing bloodshed in Iraq, the ongoing criticism of its since-repudiated claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and the bungled nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court.
The ethics findings may be particularly upsetting to a president who came to office in 2000 vowing to restore integrity and honor to a White House that he said had been tainted by the recurring scandals of the Clinton years.
On Friday, a federal grand jury in Washington indicted Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, on two counts of making false statements, two counts of perjury and one count of obstruction of justice in the course of Fitzgerald's investigation into the disclosure of the name of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame to reporters. Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, has accused the Bush administration of going to war in Iraq based on intelligence officials knew was untrue.
The survey of 600 randomly selected Americans represents a snapshot of initial reactions to the Libby indictment. Those views could quickly change as the public learns more about the charges and as Republicans and Democrats mount competing campaigns to shape public attitudes. The margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus four percentage points.
Those campaigns may play an influential role in the public's final conclusions about the leak investigation. In the 24 hours after Fitzgerald's news conference, the survey and follow-up interviews found many Americans confused as to what, if anything, to make of the complicated indictment.
Ellen Mulligan, 34, a Republican and part-time art teacher who lives in Hamden, Conn., was one of these. "If I understood what happened, Vice President Cheney's adviser spoke to his wife and then she leaked the secret," Mulligan said.
That is not an allegation in the indictment, but though Mulligan may not know exactly what happened, the scandal for her is both typical Washington and part of a broader pattern of ethical challenges in this administration. "My actual opinion is more, 'Here we go again.' Every administration has their secrets and has some corruption," she said. But she is disappointed with Bush on the ethics front. "I think Bush's actions in certain situations are pretty much unethical, [though] not illegal. . . . He's definitely not his father. His father seemed more wholesome, more down-to-earth."
The survey found some areas of general agreement. Most Republicans, 57 percent, said that the obstruction of justice and perjury charges are serious, compared with 81 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of independents.
But once past the specifics of the charges against Libby, Republicans and Democrats differed dramatically. While a large majority of Democrats (76 percent) said the case is a sign of broader ethical problems in the administration, an equally large majority of Republicans (69 percent) said it was an isolated matter. Most Republicans continued to give Bush high marks for his handling of ethics in government, while Democrats overwhelmingly graded him poorly.
The survey also suggests the emergence of an appealing fresh face in public life: special prosecutor Fitzgerald. Fifty-five percent said Fitzgerald brought the charges against Libby based on the facts of the case and not for partisan political reasons. Less than a third -- 30 percent -- said Fitzgerald was politically motivated.
"I was very impressed by him," said Dorothy Harper, 56, an immigration lawyer and a St. Louis Democrat, who watched portions of Fitzgerald's news conference. "He was very impressive. He obviously knew what he was doing."
Many Americans believe that others may be involved in the disclosure of Plame's identity to the news media. Nearly half -- 47 percent -- believe that senior White House adviser Karl Rove did something wrong in connection with the case, including nearly a fifth who believe that Rove acted illegally.
On Friday, Rove was not indicted, though Fitzgerald's investigation is continuing.
A smaller but still significant proportion -- 41 percent -- believe Cheney did something wrong, while 44 percent believe he did not.
Most Americans believe Bush had nothing to do with the incidents that resulted in the indictment brought against Libby: 55 percent said the president was not at fault, while 12 percent said he probably did something illegal, and 21 percent said he did something "unethical but not illegal."