More than a month after President Bush won re-election and Republicans picked up seats in the House and Senate, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that a plurality of Americans approves of the job Bush is doing as president. But these Americans also have doubts about his plan to reform Social Security and whether the situation in Iraq will come to a successful conclusion.
According to the poll, conducted by Hart/McInturff, 49 percent of respondents say they approve of Bush’s job performance, compared with 44 percent who say they disapprove. That’s a slight change from the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Oct. 19, two weeks before the election, when 49 percent approved of Bush and 47 percent disapproved.
But his approval numbers don’t necessarily mean he has a mandate for some of his second-term legislative goals, such as reforming Social Security. The survey shows that only 35 percent believe Bush has a mandate to allow workers to invest some of their Social Security taxes into the stock market, while 51 percent say he doesn’t have a mandate to do this. Democratic pollster Jay Campbell of Peter D. Hart Research Associates says these numbers won’t prohibit Bush and the Republicans from pushing ahead with their agenda on Social Security. “At the same time,” he said, “they will have a massive battle on their hands.”
“It will certainly be as big of a fight as everyone expects it to be,” Campbell added.
Good, bad news for Bush on Iraq
On the other hand, the poll finds that a majority — 52 percent — believes Bush has a mandate to stay in Iraq as long as necessary to create a stable Iraqi democracy. The poll has other good news for Bush and the Republicans on Iraq: It shows that 42 percent believe the GOP would do a better job handling Iraq, while only 27 percent say the Democratic Party would do a better job. The Democrats, however, maintained their advantage on the economy, with 39 percent responding that the Democratic Party would do a better job of dealing with the nation’s economy, compared with 30 percent citing the Republican Party.
Despite the favorable numbers for Bush and the GOP on Iraq, there still is concern about the eventual outcome of the war. According to the poll — which was taken from interviews of 1,003 adults from Dec. 9-13 and which has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points — only 41 percent say they are more confident that the war in Iraq will come to a successful conclusion; 48 percent say they are less confident. In the October survey, 46 percent said they were more confident about success in Iraq, while 41 percent said they were less confident. (While the respondents in the latest NBC/Journal poll are adults, the October survey’s respondents were registered voters.)
The survey has other interesting findings. For instance, the issue of “values” has become a hot (and controversial) political topic after exit polls showed that 22 percent of voters found moral values to be their most important issue in the election — more than in any other issue — and that Bush won 80 percent of these voters. The NBC/Journal poll shows that Americans believe the Democratic and Republican parties represent different sets of values.
Parties seen with strengths on different values
When asked on which one or two of specific values they thought the Democratic Party is the strongest, 37 percent cited ensuring equal opportunity, 27 percent said tolerance, 19 percent said individuality, 14 percent said compassion, and just 5 percent said strong faith. For the Republican Party, on the other hand, 31 percent cited strengthening families, 25 percent said strong faith, 21 percent said personal responsibility and just 6 percent cited compassion and tolerance.
In addition, the poll shows that the public’s perception of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has flipped after his widely criticized response to a U.S. soldier’s question about the lack of armor to protect troops in Iraq. According to the poll, 34 percent of respondents now view Rumsfeld in a positive light, while 38 percent have a negative impression of him. That’s a significant change from May, when 39 percent viewed him positively vs. 33 percent who viewed him negatively.
In Kuwait, on Dec. 8, Spc. Thomas Wilson of the Tennessee National Guard asked Rumsfeld why soldiers have to search in landfills for metal scrap to protect their trucks. Rumsfeld responded, “You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time."
The worst of times?
Finally, the poll shows that 25 percent of respondents — the most ever in this poll — believe that 2004 was one of the worst years for the United States. That's compared with only 3 percent who believe it was one of the best.
With this grim outlook, with doubts about his plans for Social Security, and with concerns about the ultimate success in Iraq, Bush appears to be facing a challenging environment as he begins his second term. “Overall, we have a very unhappy nation right now,” Campbell said.
But Republican pollster Bill McInturff argues that Bush and his chief political strategist, Karl Rove, have been able to win in this type of environment. “They’ve been politically successful with numbers like this for a very long time now.”
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News