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America continues to sour on Bush, Congress

An NBC/WSJ poll shows that the public’s view of President Bush’s job, the economy and the nation’s direction have continued to decline. But with the midterm elections just six months away, the biggest drop in the survey is in the approval rating of Congress.

As gasoline prices have spiked above $3 a gallon throughout the country, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that the public’s view of President Bush’s job, the economy and the nation’s direction have continued to decline. But with the midterm elections just six months away, the biggest drop in the survey — 11 points in one month — is in the approval rating of Congress, which is locked in a bitter debate over what do about these gas prices, immigration, Iraq and a host of other issues.

“You have never seen such a sour mood in the country,” says Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted this survey with Republican Bill McInturff. “It is sour, sour, sour.”

And in that sour mood, the poll shows, registered voters say they prefer Democrats controlling Congress — but by a smaller margin than in the past few NBC/Journal surveys.

According to the poll, Bush’s approval rating fell by one point from last month to 36 percent, his lowest mark in the survey. But the troubling news for Bush doesn’t stop there: Hart explains that Bush has now spent nine consecutive months at 40 percent or below in the poll, a feat exceeded only by Richard Nixon (13 months) and Harry Truman (26 months).

McInturff adds that it will be difficult for the president to substantially improve his standing, barring an increase in stability in Iraq or some kind of “extraordinary” event taking place.

Yet Bush’s approval isn’t the only measure that has declined. In the poll — which was taken April 21-24 of 1,005 adults, and which has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points — just 24 percent believe the nation is headed in the right direction, a drop of two points since last month and seven points since January. What’s more, only 17 percent think the nation’s economy will improve in the next 12 months, a decline of seven points since March.

Why the growing pessimism? It appears that higher gas prices are partly to blame. A whopping 77 percent say they feel uneasy about the economy, due to rising gas prices, higher interest rates and a larger federal deficit. On the other hand, just 19 percent say they feel confident, because jobs are being created and the stock market is growing.

“Gas prices and the deficit trump any other set of [economic] numbers,” Hart says. “It just takes your breath away when you fill up for $50 or $60.”

Indeed, higher gas prices topped the list of events in the past six weeks that respondents say concern them the most. The possibility of Iran’s building a nuclear weapon was next, followed by immigration and then the violence in Iraq.

But if the public is dissatisfied with gas prices, its opinion of Congress isn’t much better. According to the poll, just 22 percent approve of the job Congress is doing, a drop of 11 points since March. “That’s a lot of movement in a four- to six-week period,” says McInturff, the GOP pollster, who attributes the drop to a sharp decline in approval by Republican respondents.

Asked to rank the top one or two reasons for their disapproval of Congress, 44 percent say they are tired of Democrats and Republicans fighting with each other, 36 percent say Congress doesn’t seem to get that much done, and 34 percent say members are corrupt and unethical.

How will that anger play out in November’s midterm elections? Forty-five percent of registered voters say they prefer Democrats controlling Congress, compared with 39 percent who say they want Republicans in charge. That six-point Democratic advantage, however, is smaller than the 13-point advantage Democrats held in March or the nine-point advantage they had in January.

Yet while McInturff says voters “are not happy with either party,” he cautions against reading too much into that narrower margin, pointing out that all other polls he has seen show Democrats with a sizable lead.

Also in the NBC/Journal poll, 43 percent say their representative’s position on national issues — a terrain that seems to favor Democrats — matters the most in deciding how they vote, while 38 percent maintain that what matters most is the representative’s performance in taking care of problems in the district.

All of this, Hart says, adds up to a political environment that is “exceptionally worrisome for Republicans.” And he believes that as we head toward November, “the die is getting close to being cast” — that Americans are unhappy and want change.

Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.