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Bush approval at lowest level of his presidency

Rocked by Hurricane Katrina, gas prices  and the continued debate over Iraq, President  Bush’s public standing has sunk to new lows, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds.

WASHINGTON — Rocked by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, record-high gas prices, and the continued debate over Iraq, President George W. Bush’s public standing has sunk to new lows, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds.

Bush's approval rating has declined to its lowest level in his presidency. So has his handling of the situation in Iraq. Moreover, fewer than half those surveyed approve of the way in which Bush has dealt with the hurricane, and a whopping three-fourths believe the United States is not prepared for a nuclear, biological or chemical attack.

“The president has been living on the edge for the last 18 months,” said Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, referring to Bush’s approval rating, which until recently had held steady at or just below 50 percent since 2004.

Recent events take toll
But Hart notes that recent events, especially Hurricane Katrina, have taken a toll on Bush. “What happened out of all of this is that the personal characteristics that had been holding the president up basically burst,” he said.

Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducted the survey with Hart, adds that he has disliked stories portraying Sept. 11 and Katrina as bookends for Bush — that the first event boosted his presidency, while the second has done the opposite. But he says these poll numbers suggest that is indeed what’s happening. “It’s hard to avoid that bookend story.”

According to the poll, Bush’s job approval has plummeted to 40 percent, an all-time low for the president. That’s a drop of 6 points from the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken in July, and it’s consistent with results from other recent national surveys. The poll also finds that just 37 percent of respondents approve of Bush’s job handling Iraq, compared with 58 percent who disapprove — another all-time low. In addition, 55 percent want to reduce the number of troops in Iraq, while just 36 percent want to maintain the current level there.

August a bad month
Hart notes the Iraq numbers are particularly bad news for the White House considering other stories have recently overshadowed that one. “There hasn’t been a single piece of news on Iraq on the front page,” he says.

This survey of 1,013 adults — which was conducted from Sept. 9-12 and has an overall margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points — comes after an eventful August when gas prices skyrocketed to record highs, Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq, and other anti-war protesters held a month-long vigil outside of Bush’s ranch in Texas and Hurricane Katrina demolished much of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

Bush and his administration have since been criticized for responding too slowly to the hurricane and its aftermath. The poll shows that 48 percent approve of Bush’s handling here, while an equal 48 percent disapprove. That’s down from the 80 percent who approved of the president’s handling of Sept. 11 immediately after the terrorist attacks.

Bush, however, has taken recent steps to address the criticism: On Monday, he accepted the resignation of embattled FEMA chief Michael Brown; on Tuesday, he took responsibility for the administration’s failures in its response to the hurricane; and on Thursday, he is set to deliver a primetime speech from Louisiana.

One Katrina-related story that has grabbed headlines is that many of the Gulf Coast residents who couldn’t escape the storm were poor and minorities. According to the NBC/Journal poll, only 37 percent agree with the statement that the Bush administration would have acted with greater urgency had the affected areas been mostly white suburban communities. But there is a huge discrepancy by race here: Seventy percent of African Americans agree with the statement, while 67 percent of whites disagree.

Iraq versus domestic concerns
After Katrina, 75 percent now believe the United States is not adequately prepared for a nuclear, biological or chemical attack. That’s an increase since June 2002, nine months after Sept. 11, when 66 percent believed this.

When asked to choose between rebuilding Iraq and establishing a democratic government there or rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, 60 percent of respondents said New Orleans is the greater priority, while just 5 percent mentioned Iraq. Thirty-four percent said both are equally important.

On a somewhat similar note, 45 percent believe that reducing spending on the Iraq war is one or two actions that should be taken to pay for the Katrina relief efforts. That’s followed by 27 percent who want to repeal tax cuts, 12 percent who want to cut federal spending in other areas (such as education), 8 percent who want to increase the deficit and 7 percent who want to raise income taxes.

Overall, both pollsters — the Democrat Hart and the Republican McInturff — say this survey doesn’t provide much good news for the Bush White House. But McInturff argues that it’s premature to close the book on Bush’s second term, pointing out that Bill Clinton was able to bounce back after the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and that Ronald Reagan was able to do the same after Iran-Contra.

“Three years is a long, long time,” McInturff said. “Given what’s happened in this year alone, who knows what will happen in the next three years.”

Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.