Poll Shows Dwindling Approval of Bush and Congress

By ROBIN TONER and MARJORIE CONNELLY

New York Times

June 16, 2005

Increasingly pessimistic about Iraq and skeptical about President Bush's plan for Social Security, Americans are in a season of political discontent, giving Mr. Bush one of the lowest approval ratings of his presidency and Congress one of its lowest rating in years, according to the New York Times/CBS News Poll.

Forty-two percent of those polled said they approved of the way Mr. Bush is handling his job, a marked decline from his 51 percent rating in the aftermath of the November election, when he embarked on an ambitious second-term agenda led by the overhaul of Social Security. Sixteen months before the midterm elections, Congress fared even worse in the survey, with the approval of just 33 percent of Americans, and nearly three-fourths saying Congress did not share their priorities.

Despite months of presidential effort, the nationwide poll found the public is not rallying toward Mr. Bush's vision of a new Social Security that would allow younger workers to put part of their payroll taxes into private investment accounts. Two-thirds said they were uneasy about Mr. Bush's ability to make sound decisions on Social Security. Only 25 percent said they approved of the way Mr. Bush was handling Social Security, down slightly from what the poll found in March.

Moreover, 45 percent said that the more they hear about Mr. Bush's Social Security plan, the less they like it. The survey also found the public shared the growing skepticism in Washington about Mr. Bush's prospects for success on Social Security, with most saying they did not think Mr. Bush would succeed.

Nicole Devenish, a counselor to the president, dismissed the significance of the poll, saying Mr. Bush believes that following polls is equivalent to a dog chasing its tail. "We have advanced a broad agenda, and will continue to advocate the people's priorities," she said.

On Iraq, months of continued turmoil, insurgent attacks and casualties appear to have taken a further toll on public attitudes. Looking back, 51 percent said they thought the United States should have stayed out of Iraq, while 45 percent said military action was the right thing to do. That reflects only a slight erosion from findings by CBS throughout the spring, but a marked turnaround from 2004, when pluralities tended to think it was still the right thing to do.

Moreover, only 37 percent said they approved of Mr. Bush's handling of the situation in Iraq, down from 45 percent in February. And a strong majority of Americans now say the United States' effort to bring stability and order to Iraq is going badly - 60 percent, up from 47 percent in February.

Still, Mr. Bush continued to have majority support for his handling of the war on terrorism, one of his strengths throughout his 2004 re-election campaign.

The latest poll was conducted June 10 to 15 with 1,111 adults and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

In general, the survey found Americans in a darker mood. In one key measure, only 33 percent said they thought the country was on the right track, while 61 percent said it had gone off in the wrong direction. Similar results were found by CBS in April and May, but that measure of national optimism was markedly better last November. There was little change in the way Americans rate the current condition of the American economy - 54 percent say it is very or fairly good. But the number of Americans who say the economy is getting worse is growing, to 36 percent, from 30 percent in February.

When asked an open-ended question about the most important problems facing the nation, Americans cited the economy and jobs, war and terrorism at the top of the list. Social Security, which has consumed an enormous amount of political energy this spring, did not make the top six, suggesting voters have a different view of political priorities than the Republican-controlled Congress and the White House.

The sharpest drop in Congressional approval in recent months occurred among Republicans. In February, 54 percent of Republicans said they approved of the way Congress was doing its job; in the most recent poll, that had dropped to 40 percent. Some analysts suggest that Congress is paying the price for months of intense partisan struggle over judicial nominations and the decision to intervene in the right-to-die case of Terri Schiavo, which was widely criticized as Congressional over-reaching.

Christine Weisman, a 54-year-old Republican homemaker in Reading, Pa., said in a follow-up interview: "They're not getting anything done. They don't seem to be able to come together on anything." She added, "It's all a political thing and they're forgetting the basic needs of the people."

Representative Rahm Emanuel, the Illinois Democrat who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said, "The American people know instinctively that we have major problems and we've got a Congress that is not attending or dealing with them." As the party in control, Republicans should be held responsible, Mr. Emanuel said, although he added that the 2006 midterm elections were far too distant for predictions.

Representative Tom Reynolds, who heads the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the old truism still held: "People are not enamored, maybe, of the institution of Congress, but they love their congressman." He added, "My advice to the policymakers around Congress is to continue to get the work done, and make sure that as we get the work done, people know about it."

Mr. Bush faces a very resistant public when it comes to his Social Security proposals. He recently embraced a solvency plan that would cushion the lowest-income workers from any benefit cuts, but a majority in the survey said they still believed Mr. Bush's general plan would benefit high-income people the most.

The president has spent months trying to explain the virtues of private investment accounts, but public opinion on them remains very divided. Forty-five percent said those accounts were a good idea, 50 percent a bad idea, the same breakdown found in the survey in January.

People like the idea that the accounts could be inherited and that they could result in more money for retirement; both arguments increase support for the accounts. But the idea that these accounts could lead to huge amounts of government borrowing - to finance the transition costs - resulted in a very negative response, as did the idea that the accounts would be accompanied by a cut in the guaranteed government benefit.

Americans also recognized that Mr. Bush has a Social Security plan and the Democrats in Congress do not. A majority said they would like to see the Democrats offer a plan and not simply oppose Mr. Bush's. Moreover, a majority say they believe the Social Security system does have real problems.

But most say they do not think Mr. Bush's plan for private accounts will do anything for the system's long-term solvency.

Fred Backus contributed reporting for this article.