Bush's approval rate dips to low of 43 percent

Published: Friday, January 27, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 26, 2006 at 10:47 p.m.
WASHINGTON - As President Bush prepares for next week's State of the Union address, he faces widespread discontent over his job performance and the nation's direction that could threaten his party in the 2006 election, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg Poll has found.
In the survey, 43 percent of Americans said they approved of Bush's performance as president - his weakest showing in a Times poll.
He received even lower marks for his handling of the economy, health care and Iraq - especially from women, whom the poll found have turned against him on several fronts. And by a 2-to-1 margin, those surveyed said the nation needs to change direction from the overall course Bush has set.
But the poll also found that most Americans believe Bush's policies have made the nation more secure. And a plurality say they trust him more than Democrats to protect the country against terrorism - advantages that could help Republicans defend their House and Senate majorities in November.
Reflecting similar instincts, the poll found a majority of Americans still willing to take tough steps to reduce the risk of terrorism - from surrendering some of their civil liberties to supporting military action against Iran if it continues to advance toward developing nuclear weapons.
These contrasting findings frame what could be the central dynamic in this year's elections: whether broad, though slightly eroded, public confidence in Bush's handling of terrorism will outweigh persistent dissatisfaction over his performance on domestic concerns and the war in Iraq.
The Times/Bloomberg Poll, supervised by Times polling director Susan Pinkus, surveyed 1,555 adults from Saturday through Wednesday; it has a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.
The poll findings pose another key political question: Can Democrats significantly benefit from discontent over Bush and the congressional GOP majority while suffering their own image problems?
Just 36 percent expressed a favorable opinion of congressional Democrats, while 45 percent viewed them unfavorably. That's statistically identical to the showing for congressional Republicans, who were viewed favorably by 38 percent and unfavorably by 44 percent.
Even amid such doubts about Democrats, the poll is crowded with warning signs for Bush and his fellow Republicans.
Countering the 43 percent who said they approved of Bush's performance, 54 percent of those surveyed disapproved - figures in line with results from other national polls in the last two weeks.
The Times/Bloomberg poll found that only 31 percent agreed that "the country is better off because of Bush's policies and should proceed in the direction that he set out," while 62 percent said the nation "needs to move in a new direction."
Among voting blocs, two-thirds of women and those describing themselves as independents - as well as 71 percent of moderates - said the nation needs to change course.
Just 35 percent said they approved of Congress' performance, while 55 percent disapproved. And Democrats were favored, 46 percent to 37 percent, when registered voters were asked which party they intended to support for Congress this November.
That finding underscored the extent to which the GOP's fate this year may be linked to Bush's standing. About 7 in 10 registered voters who approved of Bush's performance said they intended to vote for Republican candidates this fall, while 7 in 10 of those who disapproved said they planned to vote for the Democrats.
The poll found that attitudes toward Bush remain polarized. About 4 in 5 Republicans say they approve of his performance, while 4 in 5 Democrats disapprove.
Tilting the balance away from Bush, nearly 3 in 5 independents disapprove; in the 2004 election, Bush ran almost even with Kerry, D-Mass., among these voters.
Bush faces majority disapproval in each of the country's four regions except the South. And while Bush doesn't draw majority support from any age group, his standing is weakest among the youngest (under 29) and oldest (over 65) Americans.
Also in 2004, Bush narrowed the gender gap - the tendency for women to lean toward Democrats. But it reopened in the new survey - just 36 percent of women said they approved of his performance, compared to 50 percent of men. One key reason: married women, who Bush successfully courted in 2004, have cooled on him, with 54 percent disapproving of his performance.
Under Bush, the Republican electoral strategy has focused on generating a large turnout from those strongly supporting him. But in the survey, significantly more Americans (39 percent) said they strongly disapproved of Bush's performance than strongly approved of him (25 percent). Among women, a striking 43 percent strongly disapproved.
Religiously devout Americans remain a cornerstone of Bush's support: over three-fifths of whites who attend religious services at least once a week approved of his performance. (Among whites who attend religious services less frequently or never, nearly three-fifths disapproved).
By 56 percent to 41 percent, a majority of those surveyed disapprove of his handling of the Iraq war.
On other national security issues, Bush's position has deteriorated somewhat from his high point after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. For instance, 48 percent said they approved of Bush's performance in fighting terrorism while 49 percent disapproved -- the first time he's fallen below 50 percent on that issue in a Times survey.
Yet other measures point toward a continuing Bush advantage on this front. When asked who could do a better job "protecting the nation against terrorism," 45 percent picked Bush, while only 32 percent chose congressional Democrats. Independents give Bush a decisive 19-percentage-point edge.
Similarly, 52 percent of those polled said Bush's policies have made the nation more secure, while only 21 percent said he's left the nation less secure (25 percent said he's made no difference, while 2 percent were undecided).

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