By Deputy political director
NBC News
updated 4/6/2005 8:12:44 PM ET 2005-04-07T00:12:44

Over the past several weeks, the American public has watched Washington tie itself in knots over whether or not to get involved in the case over Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube, over the role of the judiciary in such situations and over Social Security’s future. And according to the newest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, the public doesn’t necessarily like this whole picture: Only a third believes the country is headed on the right track, an overwhelming majority says Congress should not intervene in cases like Schiavo’s and overall support for President Bush’s proposal to overhaul Social Security is declining.

Despite it all, however, a strong plurality says it still approves of President Bush’s job performance.

The poll, conducted by Hart/McInturff, shows that only 34 percent of those polled believe that the country is headed in the right direction, compared with 51 percent who say it’s headed in the wrong direction. That’s a significant drop from the last survey in February, when 42 percent said the nation was on the right track.

In addition, approval of Bush’s handling of the economy has declined 5 points, from 46 percent in February to 41 percent in this survey — the lowest point of his presidency. (Bush’s economic-handling approval also reached 41 percent in the May 2004 NBC/Journal survey.)

Criticism of White House, media, Congress
“The public’s not very happy with the way things are going,” said Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart. Yet he attributed this attitude to several “outside atmospherics” that have made Americans uneasy, such as rising gas prices, the school shootings in Red Lake, Minn., the Schiavo battle and an even longer-than-expected winter.

Indeed, Republican pollster Bill McInturff suggests that these ratings could “bounce back” once these matters fade away or become forgotten.

But for the moment, it seems, the public isn’t too pleased with how Congress, the White House and even the media have handled the Schiavo case. The poll shows that a whopping 71 percent say that Congress should not be active in cases of family illnesses and health such as  Schiavo’s. Moreover, 51 percent say the Schiavo case made them lose respect for the media, while 50 percent lost respect for Congress, 46 lost respect for the courts and 35 percent lost respect for Bush. McInturff says the Schiavo matter had an “anti-Midas touch.” “Everyone who touched it, people lost respect for,” he said.

The poll was conducted from March 31 to April 3. It surveyed 1,002 adults and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

Public tracks Schiavo battle
It also notes that the American public was tuned into the Schiavo affair. Forty-seven percent say it was one or two of the stories they followed with the greatest interest. That’s compared with 28 percent who cited the rising gasoline prices, and 27 percent who focused on the debate over Social Security.

On Social Security, the poll shows that support for the president’s plan to partly privatize the government program has dropped, even though the Bush administration has spent the last few months campaigning aggressively for it. Fifty-five percent believe that it’s a bad idea to allow workers to invest their Social Security contributions in the stock market, while 35 percent think it’s a good idea. That’s a drop from the February survey, which found that 51 percent opposed Bush’s plan versus 40 percent who supported it. “Opinions are hardening, and they are hardening in a way that makes Bush’s job more difficult,” McInturff said. “It reflects the caution that you’ve been hearing from members of Congress.”

Despite the numbers for Bush regarding the nation’s direction, the economy, the Schiavo case and Social Security, the poll finds that a plurality — by a margin of 48 percent to 46 percent — approves of Bush’s job performance. That’s a slight decrease from February, when Bush enjoyed a job rating of 50 percent to 45 percent. “There’s a real core stability in this guy’s standing,” McInturff said.

Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.

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