Political reversals at home and continued bad news from Iraq have dragged President Bush's standing with the public to a new low, at the same time that Republican fortunes on Capitol Hill also are deteriorating, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll.
The survey found that 38 percent of the public approve of the job Bush is doing, down three percentage points in the past month and his worst showing in Post-ABC polling since he became president. Sixty percent disapprove of his performance.
With less than seven months remaining before the midterm elections, Bush's political troubles already appear to be casting a long shadow over them. Barely a third of registered voters, 35 percent, approve of the way the Republican-held Congress is doing its job -- the lowest level of support in nine years.
The negative judgments about the president and the congressional majority reflect the breadth of the GOP's difficulties and suggest that problems of each may be mutually reinforcing. Although the numbers do not represent a precipitous decline over recent surveys, the fact that they have stayed at low levels over recent months indicates the GOP is confronting some fundamental obstacles with public opinion rather than a patch of bad luck.
A majority of registered voters, 55 percent, say they plan to vote for the Democratic candidate in their House district, while 40 percent support the Republican candidate. That is the largest share of the electorate favoring Democrats in Post-ABC polls since the mid-1980s.
This grim news for the GOP is offset somewhat by the finding that 59 percent of voters still say they approve of their own representative. But even these numbers are weaker than in recent off-year election cycles and identical to support of congressional incumbents in June 1994 -- five months before Democrats lost control of Congress to Republicans.
Evenly divided on only one issue
As Bush and the Republicans falter, Democrats have emerged as the party most Americans trust to deal with such issues as Iraq, the economy and health care. By 49 to 42 percent, Americans trust Democrats more than Republicans to do a better job of handling Iraq.
Democrats also hold a six-percentage-point advantage over the GOP (49 percent to 43 percent) as the party most trusted to handle the economy. Their lead swells to double digits on such as issues as immigration (12 points), prescription drug benefits for the elderly (28 points), health care (32 points) and dealing with corruption in Washington (25 points).
The public divides evenly on only one issue: terrorism, with 46 percent expressing more confidence in the Democrats and 45 percent trusting Republicans on a top voting concern that the GOP counts on dominating.
But there is plenty of time left before Election Day for Republicans to take back ground they have lost to Democrats -- or for Democrats to solidify their recent gains. In the past year, public attitudes toward Bush and the Republicans have been driven by the news. Bush's popularity rebounded at the end of last year in response to the democratic elections in Iraq and renewed optimism about the economy at home -- only to stumble as the deadly insurgency continued and scandals in Congress and the White House drove down perceptions of the president and his party.
A total of 1,027 randomly selected adults were interviewed April 6 to 9 for this survey. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points for the overall results.
Bush's job approval rating has remained below 50 percent for nearly a year. Perhaps more ominous for the president, 47 percent in the latest poll say they "strongly" disapprove of Bush's handling of the presidency -- more than double the 20 percent who strongly approve. It marked the second straight month that the proportion of Americans intensely critical of the president was larger than his overall job approval rating. In comparison, the percentage who strongly disapproved of President Bill Clinton on that measure never exceeded 33 percent in Post-ABC News polls.
The public is even more critical of Bush's performance in specific areas. On six of seven key issues, fewer than half of the respondents approve of the job Bush is doing, while majorities express dissatisfaction with him on Iraq (62 percent), health care (62 percent) and immigration (61 percent).
Concern on gas prices
Four in 10 -- 40 percent -- say Bush is doing a good job with the economy, down eight percentage points in a month. One reason for the drop may be the recent sharp increase in fuel costs. Fewer than one in four approve of his handling of gasoline prices, virtually the same as last summer when gas prices topped $3 a gallon. Overall, 44 percent said the increases are causing "serious hardship" in their family, up significantly from August.
Half of the public now disapproves of the way Bush is handling the fight against terrorism, an issue on which majorities of Americans had typically given him high marks until last year.
The depth of public dissatisfaction with Bush and the highly partisan nature of the criticism are underscored by public attitudes toward efforts by some in Congress to censure him or impeach him for his actions as president.
Democratic and Republican congressional leaders view both scenarios as remote possibilities. Still, more than four in 10 Americans -- 45 percent -- favor censuring or formally reprimanding Bush for authorizing wiretaps of telephone calls and e-mails of terrorism suspects without court permission. Two-thirds of Democrats and half of all independents, but only one in six Republicans, support censuring Bush, the poll found.
Last month, Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) introduced a resolution in the Senate to censure Bush. A majority of Americans, 56 percent, said his move was driven more by politics than by principle.
Calls to impeach Bush are not resonating beyond Democratic partisans. One-third of Americans, including a majority of Democrats (55 percent), favor impeaching Bush and removing him from office. But more than nine in 10 Republicans and two-thirds of independents oppose impeachment.
The ongoing bloodshed and political chaos in Iraq continues to drag down support for the war, the survey found. Barely four in 10 -- 41 percent -- say the war was worth fighting, down five percentage points since December. Although more than half of Americans think troop levels in Iraq should be decreased, only 15 percent are calling for an immediate withdrawal, a figure that has not varied much over the past year.