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The Nation

Bush Falls to Pre-9/11 Approval Rating

October 02, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Beset by reversals at home and abroad, President Bush has seen his job-approval rating tumble to its level before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and he now faces an electorate as narrowly split as in the 2000 election, new polls have found.

In a succession of surveys, Bush's support has eroded -- amid public anxiety over the rising price tag and casualty count in Iraq and the continued sluggishness of the domestic economy -- to the point where Americans divide almost exactly in half on whether he is doing a good job as president and whether they prefer him or a Democrat in the 2004 election.

Both in its precarious balance and its sharp polarization along lines of partisanship, race and education, the country's assessment of Bush today closely resembles the achingly close divide that defined the 2000 vote and the first months of his presidency.

"We are back to where we were in 2000 and where we were on Sept. 10 [2001]," said Andrew Kohut, director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. "In a sense, we are back to square one."

Most analysts in both parties agree that Bush is stronger today than he was before Sept. 11 in one key aspect -- voters have more confidence in him as a leader, particularly in the war against terrorism. And in next year's campaign, Bush should benefit from an enormous fund-raising lead over the eventual Democratic nominee, as well as a formidable Republican effort to turn out supporters.

But growing doubts about Bush's policies on Iraq and the economy have depressed his support in most polls to the 50% level that experts in both parties consider the danger zone for an incumbent.

GOP strategists were quick to point out that other presidents with approval ratings even lower than Bush's during their third year -- including Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton -- easily won reelection.

But the approval ratings for Reagan and Clinton were rising around this point in their presidencies. In the last 50 years, the only presidents whose approval ratings were unambiguously falling in Gallup surveys as they entered their election year were Gerald R. Ford and George H. W. Bush, the president's father. Both were defeated.

"There is plenty of time still for [the younger Bush] to recover," said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. "But the trend is more worrisome for him at this point than where he is in absolute terms."

Bush's approval ratings fell after an avalanche of bad news. He has been hurt by continuing U.S. casualties in Iraq, public sticker shock over his request for $87 billion that would mostly go to that country for security and rebuilding efforts, and the reluctance of allies who resisted the war to contribute troops or money.

At home, he is struggling against a continued loss of jobs -- almost 2.7 million since he took office -- that threatens to leave him the first president since Herbert Hoover to preside over a net job loss during a full term.

Also, the Census Bureau reported recently that in 2002, the income for average families declined for the second consecutive year, poverty shot up by 1.7 million (the largest one-year increase since the elder Bush was president) and the number of Americans without health insurance grew by 2.4 million (again, the biggest annual increase since his father was in office).

On top of that, Bush now faces a brewing scandal. As Democrats push for an independent counsel, the Justice Department is investigating reports that administration officials disclosed to journalists the name of a CIA operative to retaliate against her husband, former diplomat Joseph C. Wilson IV. Wilson had concluded in a study for the CIA that there was no evidence to support claims Bush voiced in his State of the Union speech in January that then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had tried to obtain enriched uranium for nuclear weapons in Niger.

Stanley B. Greenberg, a leading Democratic strategist, said Bush's troubles might have crystallized when he gave his speech in early September unveiling the $87-billion spending request -- apparently far more than most Americans were expecting.

"For two years, he was the commander in chief and his image was shaped by that circumstance and people's desire for him to succeed," said Greenberg. "What happened in Iraq was people lost confidence both in what was happening on the ground and his honesty, and that led people to look at him differently on all aspects. Suddenly, problems that were accumulating matter a lot more."

Abramowitz, who specializes in studying the relationship between public opinion, economic performance and election outcomes, says the good news for Bush is that all this bad news is coming now. Most voters don't solidify their opinions on a president until his fourth year, with attitudes about the economy hardening about six months before election day, he said.

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