By Deputy political director
NBC News
updated 12/14/2005 6:14:38 PM ET 2005-12-14T23:14:38

Since his second inauguration in January, President Bush has seen a steady decline in his overall job performance, the economy, and Iraq. But the free-fall appears to be over, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

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For the first time in months, Bush’s job approval has increased, albeit by one point. In addition, as elections take place Thursday in Iraq, Americans are more confident about success there than they were a month ago. And an overwhelming majority backs Bush’s stance that the United States should not immediately withdraw all of its troops from Iraq.

That’s the good news for the administration. The bad news is that strong majorities still disapprove of Bush and his handling of key issues. “Clearly, the president is better off,” said Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted this survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff. “He’s not really in good health, but he is no longer hemorrhaging.”

McInturff compares Bush’s standing to someone who has been sliding down a mountain, but who finally gained a foothold to stop the fall. And he says that alone is a positive development for the president. “You can’t get better until you stop the bad numbers,” McInturff said.

A slight uptick
According to the poll, 39 percent approve of Bush’s handling of his job while 55 percent disapprove. That’s a slight improvement from the NBC/Wall Street Journal survey last month, when 38 percent gave him a thumbs-up. In fact, it’s the first time since January that Bush’s job-approval rating has increased in the poll.

The survey of 1,006 adults, which was taken from Dec. 9-12 and which has a margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percent, comes after a month in which Bush has tried to dominate the political discourse. In advance of Thursday’s elections in Iraq, Bush has given four major addresses in the last three weeks on the situation there. He also has talked about the recent gains in the nation’s economy (such as the 215,000 jobs added last month and the 4.3 percent growth last quarter).

“I think the president’s speeches on Iraq have helped him,” Hart explains. Indeed, while 54 percent say Bush has not given good reasons why the United States should keep its soldiers in Iraq, 42 percent believe he has — a four-point increase since November.

And 39 percent say they’re more confident the war in Iraq will come to a successful conclusion, which is a seven-point gain since last month. Nevertheless, 50 percent say they are less confident about success in Iraq.

In addition, 68 percent agree with the president and believe the United States should not immediately withdraw all of its troops from Iraq. Just 27 percent support such a withdrawal. But 60 percent believe the U.S. should reduce its troop level in Iraq, while just 35 percent advocate maintaining the current level there.

Although Bush’s numbers have inched up, the numbers for Congress keep sinking. Just 25 percent approve of Congress’s job — a three-point drop since November.

Congress under fire, too
Democrats are hoping to take back Congress in next year’s midterm elections by, in part, emphasizing a wave of ethical troubles that have hit Republicans — such as Rep. Tom DeLay’s indictment on political money-laundering charges, and Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham guilty plea for taking bribes and evading taxes.

But the poll finds that a whopping 79 percent believe both political parties have an equal problem with corruption and illegal activities. Just 12 percent say Republicans have a bigger problem, while 5 percent say Democrats have the bigger problem.

“Corruption is not just something that people place on Republicans,” says Hart, the Democratic pollster. “Most people see it as both parties.”

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