Summary of Findings

The public is more optimistic over the situation in Iraq as a result of that nation’s recent elections, but remains skeptical of the Bush administration’s decision to go to war.

Moreover, the elections have not improved opinions of President Bush’s handling of Iraq. The survey, largely completed before the president’s European trip, finds 40% approving of Bush’s job performance on Iraq, down slightly from early January (45%).

The latest nationwide poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Feb. 16-21 among 1,502 Americans, finds that 47% think the recent elections will lead to greater stability in Iraq. Just 29% expressed such hopes in January, prior to the election. Moreover, there has been a modest rise in the number who see things in Iraq going at least fairly well ­ from 48% last month to 54% currently.

Yet there are no signs the election has increased public optimism that U.S. troops can be withdrawn from Iraq any time soon. More than half (54%) believe U.S. forces will have to remain in Iraq for at least two years, with 22% saying they expect troops to stay longer than five years. In July, 44% said that the troops would have to remain for at least two years.

As was the case throughout 2004, a majority of Americans (55%) favor keeping U.S. forces in Iraq until the situation there has stabilized. But there is steadily increasing opposition to the initial decision to go to war. Nearly half (47%) say the decision to go to war was wrong, the highest percentage expressing that view since the war began. And for the first time, as many people say the war was the wrong decision as feel it was right.

The public also remains divided on the impact of the Iraq war on the fight against terrorism. A slight plurality (44%) thinks the war has helped the war on terrorism, while nearly as many (41%) think it has hurt. Attitudes on this measure have changed little over the past several months.

Most Americans (52%) are skeptical that the Iraq elections will lead to democracy elsewhere in the Middle East, while 36% think that other Middle East countries are likely to become more democratic. And the public is split over whether democracy in Iraq can succeed if Islamic religious leaders are elected to positions of power; 40% doubt that democracy can succeed if Islamic religious leaders have a prominent role, 37% say it can, while a relatively large number (23%) declined to offer an opinion.

The survey shows that Bush’s overall job approval rating stands at 46%, down slightly from 50% in January. The president’s enduring strength is his handling of terrorism ­ 59% approve of the president’s performance in that area. But the public is divided over the president’s handling of foreign affairs (43% approve/46% disapprove); last month, a small plurality (48%) approved of his job in this area. And the president continues to receive negative ratings for his handling of the situation in Iraq. Overall, 53% disapprove of the job he has done there, and 61% say Bush does not have a clear plan for bringing the situation in Iraq to a successful conclusion. That is slightly more than the number who expressed that view last fall (55% in October and September).

Bush One-Word Descriptions Familiar

Just as Bush’s overall approval rating has remained fairly stable for the past several months, so too have opinions of national conditions. Roughly four-in-ten (38%) say they are satisfied with the way things are going in the country, while 56% are dissatisfied. That is comparable to measures since last May, when satisfaction was somewhat lower (33%).

When respondents are asked to describe Bush in a single word, his image elicits slightly more negative than positive characterizations (42% vs. 34%). Those with a favorable view of Bush most frequently volunteered such terms as “honest,” “good,” “integrity,” and “leader” to describe the president. The most common negative references included “arrogant,” “incompetent,” and “idiot.”

Signs of Optimism

The public is much more optimistic about stability in Iraq than it was prior to the election, when just 29% thought the election would lead to greater stability. This is presumably a reaction to an election in Iraq that drew extensive news coverage and was largely seen as successful.

A wide partisan gap separates views on whether the elections will lead to greater stability in Iraq. Fully 71% of Republicans expect the elections will result in more stability; 45% of independents and just 29% of Democrats agree. However, there is more optimism across the political spectrum than there was before the election. In January, 46% of Republicans, 25% of independents and 17% of Democrats felt the elections would lead to greater stability.

Nearly all Americans say they have heard at least something about the recent elections in Iraq, and more than half (52%) have heard a lot about the elections. Republicans are somewhat more likely than independents and Democrats to say they have heard a lot about the elections.

Those who have heard a lot about the elections are considerably more likely than those who have not to predict greater stability for Iraq (by 54%-40%). But partisanship is a factor here as well. Among Republicans and independents, respondents who have heard a lot about the elections are much more upbeat about prospects for stability than those who are less attentive. By contrast, attentiveness to the elections has only slight impact on Democratic opinions on whether the balloting will lead to greater stability in Iraq.

Declining Support for War

Despite the recent uptick in the number who take a positive view of the situation in Iraq, perceptions of the U.S. military effort have declined over the long-term. A year ago, 63% felt that the U.S. military effort was going very or fairly well; currently, 54% take a positive view of the military operation.

Opposition to the decision to go to war also has been rising steadily. A year ago, 39% opposed the decision to go to war, while 56% were in favor. The public is now evenly split on the war (47% right decision, 47% wrong decision).

Opinion on the war has long been politically polarized. Currently, Republicans back the decision to use military force in Iraq by seven-to-one (84%-12%). Democrats oppose the use of force by a somewhat smaller margin (74%-19%).

Notably, independents have become much more skeptical of the decision to use force. Currently, 53% of independents say the U.S. made the wrong decision to go to war, the highest percentage of opposition among independents since the war began.

Yet independents remain supportive of maintaining U.S. forces in Iraq until the situation there is stabilized. A majority of independents (55%) favor keeping U.S. forces in Iraq until the situation is stabilized, while 42% support withdrawing the troops as soon as possible. About eight-in-ten Republicans (79%) and fewer than half as many Democrats (36%) favor keeping the troops in Iraq until it is stabilized. These opinions have held steady for the past several months.

News Interest Index

Attention to news about the current situation in Iraq leads this month’s news interest index, with 38% of the public following that story very closely. Overall interest in Iraq is down from last month when nearly half the public (48%) tracked news about the situation in Iraq. Roughly a quarter of Americans (27%) say they paid very close attention to the elections in Iraq.

Discussion of how to deal with the Social Security system captured the very close attention of nearly a third of the public (32%) this month. Democrats’ interest in this story is slightly higher than Republicans’ and independents’ (40% vs. 30% and 28%, respectively). Interest in the Social Security debate is significantly greater than in the late 1990s; in January 1998, just 18% followed reports on Social Security very closely.

Reports on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program were followed very closely by 22% of the public. That is about the same level of interest in reports on North Korea’s weapons in September 2003 (19% very closely). Just 8% of Americans say they paid very close attention to the Michael Jackson trial. That is the lowest level of interest in reports about Jackson’s legal problems in the past decade. In November 2003, 29% said they closely tracked child molestation charges against Jackson.