Summary of Findings

President George W. Bush’s poll numbers are going from bad to worse. His job approval rating has fallen to another new low, as has public satisfaction with national conditions, which now stands at just 29%. And for the first time since taking office in 2001, a plurality of Americans believe that George W. Bush will be viewed as an unsuccessful president.

About four-in-ten (41%) say that, in the long run, Bush will be an unsuccessful president, up from 27% in January and the highest percentage expressing that view since he took office. About a quarter (26%) believe Bush will be successful ­ down 10 points since January ­ while 30% say it is too early to tell.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Oct. 6-10 among 1,500 adults, finds the president beset by problems on multiple fronts. The president’s overall job approval rating has slipped to 38%. And on a number of issues, ranging from the federal budget deficit to relations with U.S. allies, majorities or pluralities say that Bush’s policies have made things worse, not better.

In advance of Iraq’s Oct. 15 constitutional referendum, public opinion on the war has taken a negative turn. For the first time since the war began, a majority of Americans (53%) say the U.S. military effort there is not going well. Half of Americans now say the decision to use military force in Iraq was wrong, up from 44% last month. Support for keeping U.S. forces in Iraq, which had remained stable over the past year, also has declined. As many Americans now say the U.S. should bring its troops home as soon as possible as favor keeping the troops there until Iraq is stable (48% vs. 47%).

While the presidential election is still more than three years off, Bush’s problems are fueling a widespread desire for change. By a sizable margin (69%-25%), more Americans say that as they look ahead to the next election, they would prefer to see a president who offers different policies from the Bush administration rather than one offering programs similar to the Bush administration’s. By comparison, as the Clinton administration was nearing the end of its tenure in June 2000, far fewer people expressed a desire for a change of course (52%).

Similarly, more people now believe that Bush will be viewed as an unsuccessful president than said that about President Clinton at any point in his administration. In October 1994, a low point of Clinton’s presidency and just a month before the Republicans gained control of Congress, roughly a third (35%) believed Clinton would go down as an unsuccessful president, compared with 41% who say that about Bush currently. However, more people also think Bush will ultimately be successful than expressed that opinion about Clinton in October 1994 (26% vs. 14%).

Public concern about the impact of Bush’s policies and decisions span a wide range of issue areas, foreign and domestic. Two-thirds of Americans (66%) say Bush’s policies and decisions have made the federal budget deficit worse, compared with just 6% who believe his policies have had a positive impact, and 21% who say they have made the deficit neither better nor worse. Solid majorities also say that Bush’s policies have negatively affected the nation’s economy (57%) and the gap between rich and poor (57%). While tax reduction has been a centerpiece of Bush’s presidency, nearly twice as many say his policies have made the tax system worse than say they have made the system better (40% vs. 22%). National security is the only issue mentioned on which a clear plurality (47%) says Bush’s policies have made things better.

However, the public’s evaluations of Bush’s personal character and leadership, while far below where they were earlier in his presidency, have held fairly steady since the summer. Roughly half view Bush as a strong leader (51%), say he is able to get things done (51%), and say he is trustworthy (49%). These opinions are largely unchanged since July.

And while Bush and his party are struggling, the Democratic Party continues to be viewed in the same negative light as the Republicans. Only about third (32%) approve of the job Democratic leaders in Congress are doing, while the same number has a positive view of Republican congressional leaders (32%). Both measures have declined slightly over the past month (36% approval for each in mid-September).

Impact of Bush’s Policies

By a margin of nearly two-to-one, more say President Bush has had a negative (41%) rather than a positive (21%) impact on politics and the way government works in Washington. This reflects an 11-point decline from the number who said in March 2004 that Bush had made things work better in Washington; however, the number saying he has made things worse has risen only two points (from 39% to 41%).

On a wide range of issues, majorities or pluralities of the public say the president’s policies and decisions have made things worse rather than better. Negative sentiment is especially strong in judgments about the federal budget deficit, America’s economy, and the gap between rich and poor. Nearly half (47%) also say Bush’s policies have worsened America’s relations with its allies; 22% think he has made U.S. relations with allies better.

In several specific domestic policy domains, pluralities see the president’s policies and decisions as having made things worse or had no impact one way or the other. Four-in-ten say his policies have made the tax system and the Social Security system worse (though in the latter case 39% say he’s made it neither better nor worse). More say Bush has made race relations worse (29%) than better (16%), but nearly half (48%) say he’s had no impact.

The one area where a near-majority believes the president has made things better is in America’s national security: 47% say he’s made this better, while 30% say he’s made it worse.

These attitudes are strongly shaped by partisanship. But aside from national security ­ where 83% of Republicans say Bush has made things better ­ GOP partisans show a notable lack of enthusiasm in their ratings of Bush’s performance. About half of Republicans say Bush’s policies have improved morality in America (53%), the economy (51%), public education (49%), the tax system (48%), and relations with allies (46%). Fewer Republicans offer positive assessments of Bush’s policies in other areas, saying instead that he made things neither better nor worse. But even Republicans are critical when it comes to how Bush’s policies have affected the federal budget deficit; nearly half (47%) say his policies have made the deficit worse, just 12% think he has improved the situation.

Few Democrats are willing to say the president has made anything better; about a quarter of Democrats (24%) say Bush has made America’s national security better, which is twice the percentage who believe his policies in any other issue area have made things better. Independents are more likely to say Bush has made things worse than better on every issue except national security.

Looking Ahead

A large majority of the public believes that the next president should offer policies and programs that are different from those of the Bush administration (69%) rather than similar policies (25%). Only among conservative Republicans is there strong sentiment for a continuation of the administration’s policy direction: 69% want similar policies, while 21% want different ones.

Other groups that have been loyal to the president are divided on this question. M
oderate and liberal Republicans split almost evenly (46% similar policies, 44% different), as do white evangelical Protestants (46%, 43%). For their part, Democrats are nearly unanimous in their desire for different policies, and this is the prevailing view among independents as well (77% favor different policies).

More See Bush as Unsuccessful

Views about the long-term prospects for Bush’s presidency are significantly less positive than on the eve of his second inauguration, and, not surprisingly, highly partisan. Among independents, 41% now think Bush will be seen as unsuccessful, while just 19% think he will be successful; 38% say it’s too early to tell. Most Democrats think Bush’s presidency will be viewed as unsuccessful ­ 63% among conservative to moderate Democrats and fully 82% among liberal Democrats.

Two-thirds (68%) of conservative Republicans think Bush will be successful in the long run, while just 2% think he will be unsuccessful; 27% say it is too early to tell. Among moderate-to-liberal Republicans, just 53% think he will ultimately be successful; 30% say it is too soon to judge and 14% believe his presidency will be unsuccessful.

Opinions about the long term prospects for Bush’s presidency have slipped since January. Just before the start of Bush’s second term, 72% of Republicans felt that Bush would go down as a successful president; that number has dropped to 62%. There has been a comparable decline among independents (from 30% to 19%). Fewer than one-in-ten Democrats continue to say that Bush will be successful, but the percentage of Democrats who think Bush will be unsuccessful has risen from 48% to 69% since January. Optimism about Bush’s presidency fell more among men than women, and among younger people rather than older ones.

Bush Approval

President Bush began his second term in office with significantly less popular support than other reelected presidents in the modern era ­ just 50% approved of his performance in Pew’s January 2005 poll. Since then, the president’s ratings have undergone further erosion in the face of bad news at home and abroad. Currently, 38% approve of the president’s job performance while 56% disapprove.

The president continues to draw strong support from Republicans, 81% of whom approve of the job he is doing. But that number reflects an eight-point decline since January, with most of that drop occurring in late summer. Among independents, a plurality of 47% approved of Bush’s performance in January; now just 34% do so. Approval among Democrats is now in the single digits (9%), down from 17% in January.

Personal Characteristics and Qualities

Views of the president’s personal qualities and characteristics remain much as they were this summer, prior to the controversies over the government’s hurricane response and Bush’s Supreme Court nominees. About half of Americans view Bush as trustworthy, a strong leader, and able to get things done. Though these numbers are largely unchanged from July 2005, each represents a significant decline since September 2003, when approximately two-thirds felt Bush had these positive qualities.

A narrow majority (51%) believes the president “doesn’t care about people like me,” while 45% say he does care. This also is largely unchanged since July.

Bush’s image as a conservative is well established, with 55% of the public saying this term describes him and 57% saying he listens more to conservative members of his party than to moderates. About a quarter of the public (27%) says Bush is “middle of the road” and 9% say he is liberal. Democrats and Republicans are about equally likely to characterize Bush as conservative (59% and 60%, respectively).

Iraq Concerns Grow

As attention has returned to Iraq after the hurricane crisis on the Gulf Coast, the public’s view of the war has grown considerably more negative. For the first time in Pew’s polling, most Americans (53%) say the U.S. military effort in Iraq is not going well. This represents a nine-point increase since last month, while the percentage saying things are going very or fairly well has dropped from 53% to 44%.

As evaluations of the situation in Iraq grow more negative, a number of Americans are reconsidering their support for the war. For the first time, more say it was the wrong decision to use military force in Iraq (50%) than believe it was the right decision (44%). The public’s patience regarding America’s troop commitments also is declining. Today as many say they want to see the troops brought home as soon as possible (48%) as say we should keep our troops in Iraq until the situation has stabilized (47%). This is in contrast to nearly two years of sentiment in favor of seeing things through.

War Dividing Both Parties

Iraq is becoming an increasingly divisive issue within the Republican Party. Support for the war has fallen significantly among moderate and liberal Republicans. Last month, this group said that the war the right decision by a 76%-17% margin; currently, the margin is 61%-33%. By comparison, conservatives in the party have remained relatively solid in their support for the war. Today moderate and liberal Republicans are three times as likely as conservative Republicans to say America made the wrong decision in Iraq (33% vs. 11%). Similarly, the share of moderate and liberal Republicans saying the war is not going well has increased by 12 points, from 27% to 39%, since September.

Democratic perceptions of the war are fractured too, as liberal Democrats have become nearly universal in their opposition. Today nearly nine-in-ten liberal Democrats (89%) say America made the wrong decision getting involved in Iraq, up 11 points from September. Nearly as many (82%) say things are not going well there, up from 66%. Moderate and conservative Democrats, by comparison, are less unified; nearly three-in-ten (29%) say the war was the right decision, unchanged from last month. Perceptions of the war among independents continue to grow more negative. Just 40% of independents say the situation is going very or fairly well, while 57% see things going poorly.

Men, Minorities More Gloomy

While Americans of all backgrounds are more downbeat about the war today than a month ago, the decline has been particularly notable among men and minorities. In September, men felt it was going well by a 57%-41% margin; today, they say it is not going well by a 57%-42% margin. While six-in-ten African Americans had a negative perception of progress in Iraq last month, 80% take that view today.

Iraq and Terrorism

A plurality of Americans (41%) continue to think the war in Iraq has increased the chances of a terrorist attack in the U.S.. Opinions on this issue vary considerably by party, with 53% of Democrats, 46% of independents, and 22% of Republicans saying the war has increased the likelihood of terrorism in the U.S. People who feel the use of force was the wrong decision (60%) are much more likely than those who think it was the right decision (22%) to say the chances of a terrorist attack have increased.

Timetable for Withdrawal?

The public is split over whether the U.S. should (52%) or should not (43%) set a timetable for when troops will be withdrawn from Iraq. The desire to set a timetable is higher among women than men (56% to 47%), minorities than whites (64% to 48%), and younger Americans than older (62% of 18-29 year olds vs. 40% of those age 65 and older).

A slim-but-growing majority are concerned that the U.S. will wait too long to withdraw troops (55% now, up from 50% in July and 48% in January 2004). Only about a third (32%) are more concerned that the U.S. will leave too soon before a stable democracy is in place. Republican opinions on this question have changed since July. At that time more Republicans worried that the U.S. might leave Iraq too quickly by a 56% to 30% margin. Today 47% of Republicans say they worry more about leaving too soon, while 41% are more concerned that we will stay too long. Most Democrats (71%), and a smaller majority of independents (54%), are more concerned that troops will wait too long to withdraw troops from Iraq.

Most Americans (57%) expect that U.S. troops will need to remain in Iraq for at least two more years. Only 36% believe troops will need to be in Iraq for a shorter amount of time. These expectations have not changed significantly since February. Roughly six-in-ten Democrats (61%) and independents (62%) believe troops will need to remain for at least two years, while 45% of Republicans say the same.

New Constitution

The nationwide referendum on the proposed Iraqi constitution, set for Oct. 15, has attracted little public interest. Just 21% say they have heard a lot about the upcoming vote, far less than previous political transitions in Iraq. Nearly half (46%) had heard a lot about the Iraqi general elections in January in polling conducted weeks before that vote, and 42% had heard a lot about the handover of power from the U.S. to Iraqi leaders in June 2004. More than a quarter of Americans (28%) say they have heard nothing at all about this weekend’s critical referendum in Iraq.

Few Americans see the referendum as a decisive event in the development of Iraq’s democracy. Half (51%) predict that the ratification of the Iraqi constitution would not change the situation in Iraq much. Of those who see ratification having an influence, roughly three-in-ten think the constitution will lead to more stability, while 10% think it will lead to less stability. It is worth noting, however, that these attitudes are virtually the same as opinions before the January 2005 elections, when an equally large proportion thought a successful election would do little to change the situation in Iraq. After that election was completed, there was a sharp uptick in optimism.

As with virtually all perceptions related to Iraq, there is a sharp partisan divide in attitudes about the Iraqi constitution. While neither Republicans nor Democrats have heard much about the constitutional referendum, Republicans (53%) are far more likely than Democrats (20%) or independents (23%) to say that approval of the constitution will lead to a more stable situation in Iraq. The majority view of Democrats and independents is that the vote will not make any difference.

Party Images

There is slight downward tilt to evaluations of both Republican and Democratic Party leaders in Congress. Just 32% approve of the job performance of Republican leaders in Congress, while 52% disapprove. Public views of Democratic leaders are no better, with 32% approving and 48% disapproving. Approval of the job performance of both parties’ leaders has been inching downward since spring.

The images of the two parties have changed in some areas over the past year or so. By 40%-30%, more Americans see the Democratic Party, rather than the Republican Party, as governing in an honest and ethical way. This represents the largest Democratic advantage on this measure since the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994. The Democratic Party held a 37%-34% edge on honesty in July 2004.

By 41%-35%, more believe that the Democratic Party can manage the federal government well, about the same as in 2004. There has been less change in other perceptions of the two parties. The Democratic Party continues to be seen as concerned with the needs of the disadvantaged and average Americans.

Democrats also maintain a sizable advantage as the party that can bring about needed change. A solid majority views the Republican Party as concerned with business interests.