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President facing ‘gray and gloomy’ electorate

An NBC/WSJ poll shows President Bush faces an electorate that continues to be dissatisfied with his job performance, increasingly wants U.S. soldiers home from Iraq and believes the GOP is associated more with special interests and lobbyists.

Heading into Tuesday's State of the Union address and the beginning of the 2006 political season, President Bush faces an electorate that continues to be dissatisfied with his job performance, increasingly wants U.S. soldiers to come home from Iraq, and believes the Republican Party is associated more with special interests and lobbyists, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

The overall political climate for Bush is “gray and gloomy,” says Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducted this survey with Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart. “In general, people are just not in a happy mood.”

The poll, however, contains a slice of good news for the Bush administration: A small majority approves of the administration’s controversial use of domestic wiretaps without a court order to track calls between terrorist suspects and U.S. residents. But a majority also believes that these wiretaps could be misused.

The survey, which was conducted from Jan. 26-29 of 1,011 adults and which has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, shows Bush’s approval rating at 39 percent, which is unchanged from last month’s NBC/Journal poll. (Other recent national surveys have shown his approval rating to be slightly higher, in the low 40s.) In addition, only 25 percent say they want to see Bush take the lead role in setting policy for the country, while 49 percent say they prefer Congress.

“He’s off track,” says Hart, who wonders if Bush will use his State of the Union address to strike a more conciliatory tone with his political opponents. “If it is ‘our way or the highway,’ it will be a very long year for the president.”

‘Elevate the tone here in Washington’
In a brief preview of his address Monday morning, after he met with his Cabinet, Bush seemed to suggest he’ll be seeking the middle ground. “I'll do my best to elevate the tone here in Washington, D.C., so we can work together to achieve big things for the American people,” he said.

Yet one of the big things that the American people want accomplished is something that Bush — as of now — isn’t prepared to do: bring U.S. troops home from Iraq. Asked which goal they’d pick if America could achieve just one thing in the coming year, 35 percent said they’d choose bringing most of the American forces home from Iraq; 20 percent cited dealing with the cost of health care and coverage for the uninsured; 17 percent said stimulating the economy and job growth; and 11 percent said simplifying the Medicare prescription-drug benefit for seniors. Only 7 percent chose reducing taxes as their No. 1 goal.

In another sign that Americans want to bring the soldiers home, the poll shows that 66 percent want to reduce the number of U.S. troops. Yet just 28 percent want to maintain the current troop level — down from 35 percent in December. McInturff explains that Republicans and others expected the largely successful Iraqi election in December would help justify the administration’s stay-the-course Iraq strategy with the public. “It may have done just the opposite,” he says.

Bush has continually stated that it would be a mistake to immediately withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq, but he has vowed that as “the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.”

On the politically charged subject of domestic wiretapping, 51 percent approve of the administration’s use of these wiretaps — without a court order — to monitor the conversations between al-Qaida suspects and those living in the United States, compared with 46 percent who disapprove. However, 56 percent say they’re concerned that such wiretaps could be misused and could violate a person’s privacy.

GOP tarred by ethics issues
Another issue that also has recently dominated the political headlines is ethics and lobbying reform. In fact, Democrats, citing the recent guilty pleas by GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Rep. Duke Cunningham, R-Calif., are trying to take back control of the House and Senate with the message that Republicans are engaged in a “culture of corruption.” Republicans counter that the ethics problems in Washington are bipartisan.

According to the poll, 36 percent believe that the Republican Party is more influenced by special interests and lobbyists, while 22 percent say that’s true of the Democratic Party. Thirty-three percent argue that both parties are equally influenced by special interests and lobbyists.

With Republicans and Democrats divided on these issues — and many others ’ Hart says there’s one thing you can easily predict for Tuesday’s State of the Union address: Republicans will constantly applaud Bush and his statements, while Democrats will mostly sit on their hands. “There are going to be few times when you see both sides of the chamber rise up in unison.”

Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.