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updated 1/19/2005 9:37:14 AM ET 2005-01-19T14:37:14

George W. Bush heads into his second term of office tomorrow as president of a still divided nation, upbeat about the economy but concerned about Iraq and strongly opposed to his chief domestic priority, social security reform.

On the eve of the inauguration, a poll shows as many Americans oppose Mr. Bush as support him: 48 percent of people surveyed approve of his handling of the job of president, while 48 percent disapprove.

As Republicans and supporters of the president gather in Washington for a $40 million celebration of the mandate Mr. Bush secured at the ballot box last year, the poll highlights the constraints on his authority and some of the obstacles that may lie ahead.

The poll, conducted by the Los Angeles Times, suggests a buoyant national mood: 60 percent of people said the economy was doing well and 72 percent believed their personal finances were secure.

But the chief policy challenges confronting Mr. Bush — an exit strategy from Iraq and an overhaul of the U.S. pension system are complicated by low levels of public support.

The majority of Americans — 56 percent — said the situation in Iraq was not worth going to war for; 44 percent said the conflict had destabilized the situation in the Middle East compared with 23 percent who said it had helped; and 58 percent of people felt neither the U.S. nor the insurgents were winning in Iraq.

As Condoleezza Rice, Mr. Bush's nominee as next secretary of state, continues to set out her plans to improve the U.S.'s image abroad in a second day of Senate confirmation hearings on Wednesday , the poll shows the scale of the challenge: 64 percent said Iraq had hurt America's image around the world.

The public opinion survey offers a measure of the entrenched opposition to social security reform one of the main second term domestic targets. Roughly 54 percent of people disapprove of Mr. Bush's plans to introduce private investment accounts, most of them disapproving strongly.

Still, if the new system of private retirement accounts was put in place, more people (44 percent) would invest in it than stay away (42 percent).

Mr. Bush successfully closed the gender gap in the 2004 election, winning the support of women voters who tend to back Democratic candidates.

But the poll shows the gap has widened again, as women registered higher levels than men of concern about Iraq and opposition to social security reform.

However, Americans are overwhelmingly satisfied with the handling of the Indian Ocean catastrophe, with 71 percent of them saying they approved of Mr. Bush's handling of the tsunami disaster.

© The Financial Times Ltd 2013. "FT" and "Financial Times" are trademarks of the Financial Times.

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