After a week of positive news for the White House — including the death of terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the formation of a new government in Iraq — the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that President Bush's standing has slightly improved, especially when it comes to the situation in Iraq.
But with the November midterm elections getting closer, the NBC/WSJ poll also has plenty of troubling news for the White House and the Republican Party: Bush's job approval remains below 40 percent, a majority believes that the Iraq war was a mistake, and a strong plurality prefers Democrats winning in the fall.
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Significance of Bush increase
Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted this survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff, calls the results a "baby bounce" for Bush. "The death of Zarqawi may have improved attitudes about ... the war," he says. "But I think it changed next to nothing toward the overall attitudes about the president ... and the upcoming elections."
McInturff agrees. "You can see a slight tick up. But you don't see any influence on Bush as of yet."
According to the poll, 37 percent approve of Bush's job performance — an increase of one point since the last survey in April. This is the seventh straight NBC/Journal poll that has had Bush's job approval below 40 percent. Meanwhile, just 23 percent approve of Congress' job, while a whopping 64 percent disapprove.
This survey — which was conducted from June 9-12 of 1,002 adults, and which has a margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points — comes after a week of mostly good news for the White House and the Republican Party.
On June 6, Republicans — worried about their standing in this political environment — won a key special congressional election in California. On June 8, news surfaced that U.S. forces had killed Zarqawi, al-Qaida's leader in Iraq. And Tuesday, Bush made a surprise visit to Iraq that dominated the news, while his chief political adviser, Karl Rove, was told he would not face charges in the leak of a CIA officer's identity. (Those last two developments, though, occurred after the poll was conducted.)
Iraq war weighs heavy on public minds
The poll also comes amid a new round of debate in Washington over the Iraq war. Some Democrats, including 2004 presidential nominee John Kerry, are calling for the United States to withdraw most of its troops from there by the end of the year. But Bush and his GOP allies disagree with that course of action. "Pulling out of Iraq before we accomplish the mission will make the world a more dangerous place," Bush said at a news conference Wednesday.
Yet according to the poll, Americans still seem to have doubts about both the rationale for the war and its eventual outcome. Fifty-three percent say the decision to attack Iraq was the wrong decision, compared with 41 percent who believe it was the right thing to do. Moreover, another 53 percent signal that they are less confident the war will come to a successful conclusion. That figure, however, is down four points since April.
Also down is the percentage wanting to reduce the U.S. troop level in Iraq. In the January NBC/Journal poll, 66 percent said they wanted to lower the number of troops, while just 28 percent wanted to maintain the current level. Now, 57 percent believe the number of troops should be reduced.
Hart, the Democratic pollster, notes that the public's outlook on Iraq has slightly improved. "But the overall dynamic of the public wanting to make a change in Iraq has not changed at all."
Given these numbers, McInturff says he would advise Republican candidates this fall to empathize with the public's concerns about Iraq, but also point out what the consequences of an American withdrawal from that country would be.
Indeed, it's clear that the situation in Iraq will be on voters' minds as they head to the polls in November. Asked which one or two issues will be most important in deciding their vote for Congress, 53 percent of registered voters said Iraq. That was followed by illegal immigration (at 32 percent), abortion (at 21 percent), and tax cuts (at 19 percent).
And whom do voters prefer in November? According to the poll, 49 percent of registered voters want a Democratic-controlled Congress, while 38 percent prefer Republicans to retain control. This 11-point Democratic advantage is up from the April NBC/Journal survey, which had them leading by six points (45 to 39 percent). Prior to that April survey, however, Democrats had held at least an eight-point advantage on this question since October 2005.
In his news conference Wednesday, Bush was optimistic about the GOP's chances in the midterms. "I believe we're going to hold the House and the Senate," he said, "because our philosophy is one that is forward-looking and optimistic and has worked."
But looking at all of these poll numbers, Hart compares the November elections to an iceberg for the GOP. "The iceberg for the Republican Party is coming closer and closer," he explains, adding that Republicans still have time to steer their ship away from it.
Yet as each month passes without a significant move to the left or the right, he says, that iceberg becomes harder and harder to avoid.
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News