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Bush ratings continue to drop to new lows

An NBC/WSJ poll shows President  Bush's ratings continue to drop to new lows, while a majority would now prefer a Democrat-controlled Congress.

The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll might sound like a broken record, but the tune grows louder as congressional midterm elections get closer and closer: President Bush is once again facing the lowest job approval rating of his presidency, the lowest percentage of Americans who believe the country is headed in the right direction, and an electorate that greatly prefers a Democratic-controlled Congress over a Republican-controlled one.

Yet the poll also shows something else that goes beyond the November midterm elections: A strong majority believes Bush is experiencing a long-term setback from which he’s unlikely to recover. “He’s losing his grip on governance,” says Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted this survey with Republican Bill McInturff. “It’s now a sense that we’ve seen the best that he’s going to produce as president of the United States.”

Despite this grim outlook for the Republican Party, it still holds advantages over Democrats — albeit by narrower margins — when it comes to Iraq and homeland security. And that could benefit Republicans in November, especially if national security issues dominate the landscape, as they did in 2002 and 2004.

According to the poll, only 37 percent approve of Bush’s job performance — his lowest mark ever in the survey. That’s a two-point drop since the last NBC/Journal poll, and a one-point decline from his previous low of 38 percent last November. In addition, just 26 percent believe the nation is headed in the right direction, a tie from the previous Bush administration low, which also occurred in November.

What’s more, 58 percent believe Bush is facing a long-term setback from which he’s unlikely to improve. Twenty-six percent think he’s experiencing only a short-term setback, and 11 percent say he’s dealing with no setback at all.

The last NBC/Journal poll, which was released on the eve of Bush’s State of the Union address in late January, had shown a slight uptick in the president’s handling of the economy, foreign affairs and Iraq. But since then, a new round of embarrassments, miscalculations and violence in Iraq all have rocked the administration.

In February, Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot a hunting companion in the face at a South Texas ranch, which created a weeklong distraction for the White House. Soon after, voters and Congress became furious at the news that the administration approved a ports sale to a United Arab Emirates state-run firm; the deal was later scuttled. And then a wave of sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites erupted in Iraq.

Indeed, it’s the situation in Iraq that appears to be at the heart of Bush’s problems. According to the poll — which was taken of 1,005 adults from March 10-13, and which has a margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points — 61 percent disapprove of Bush’s handling of the situation. Moreover, 57 percent are less confident that the war in Iraq will come to a successful conclusion, which is a seven-point increase since December. And 61 percent say the United States should reduce the number of troops there, while just 31 percent want to maintain the current troop level.

“Everything comes back around to the war,” Hart says. “That seems to set up the president’s basic problem and his basic challenge.”

Republican pollster McInturff puts it this way: “It is hard to pivot … when every day the core decision in your presidency is Iraq” — and the situation there appears grim.

Looking ahead to the midterm elections in November, the poll shows that 50 percent prefer a Democratic-controlled Congress versus 37 percent who want it controlled by Republicans. McInturff says it’s a “problematic environment” for the Republicans. “You are working harder as a Republican [candidate] because you are pushing uphill.”

But Republicans still have some advantages — beyond their campaign cash and the small number of competitive races this fall —that could benefit them in November. In the poll, they hold the advantage over Democrats on Iraq and homeland security. (However, Democrats have the edge on health care, the economy, taxes and ethics in government.)

In addition, Hart says the poll shows that Americans don’t dislike Bush as much as they dislike his policies. And so a change in policy — especially regarding Iraq — could benefit Bush and the GOP.

“The upside for the president is, Can he find a way to get the troops out of Iraq and begin to make the public feel a lot more comfortable about that?”

Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News. NBC’s Huma Zaidi contributed to this article.