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Thursday, December 08, 2005

Economy Lifts Bush's Support in Latest Poll - New York Times

Economy Lifts Bush's Support in Latest Poll - New York TimesDecember 8, 2005
Economy Lifts Bush's Support in Latest Poll

After months of political erosion, President Bush's approval rating improved markedly in the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll, largely tracking Americans' more positive attitudes toward the economy.

But his presidency is still plagued by widespread doubts about his handling of the war in Iraq, with 52 percent of poll respondents saying the Bush administration intentionally misled the public when its officials made the case for war. A majority of Americans want the United States to set some timetable for troop withdrawal; 32 percent want the number of American troops reduced, and 28 percent want a total pullout.

The survey, conducted Dec. 2-6, showed Mr. Bush's approval rating at 40 percent, up from 35 percent a month ago, which was the low point of his presidency. His gains primarily came among men, independents, 18-to-29-year-olds and conservatives. He remains a fiercely polarizing figure, with an approval rating of 79 percent among Republicans, 12 percent among Democrats and 34 percent among independents.

Over all, 53 percent of Americans disapprove of Mr. Bush's job performance, down from 57 percent a month ago.

Despite his gains, Mr. Bush's 40 percent approval rating remains among his lowest, and is still substantially lower than that of Presidents Bill Clinton (who was at 58 percent) or Ronald Reagan (who was at 68 percent) at comparable points in their second terms.

The telephone poll of 1,155 adults nationwide had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

As Republican strategists have hoped, Mr. Bush seems to be getting a political lift from the economy. Mr. Bush has tried hard to highlight good economic news in recent weeks, which have seen a drop in the price of gasoline and new figures showing strong growth in the third quarter. The poll showed that 56 percent describe the national economy as good, up from 47 percent a month ago.

"Things are not that bad," Susan Huru, a 47-year-old independent from Wasilla, Alaska, said in a follow-up interview after the poll was completed. "I can still afford things except for maybe gas."

Mr. Bush's handling of the economy also got slightly better marks - 38 percent approve, up from 34 percent last month. (In contrast, his overall rating on foreign policy continued to fall, to 36 percent from 38 percent in September and 42 percent in August.)

In another measure of national mood closely followed by political strategists, the percentage of Americans who say the country is "seriously off on the wrong track" has declined - to 60 percent, from 68 percent a month ago.

Charles Cook, who publishes an independent political newsletter tracking Congressional races, said Mr. Bush's uptick in the poll is "consistent with everything else out there." He added: "It looks like they're finally getting a little bit of credit for the economy performing as strongly as it has. We've had good economic news for a while, but Iraq so dominated things it couldn't break through."

Still, 11 months before the midterm elections, the poll found much that was ominous for the Republican Congressional majority. Only 33 percent of Americans said they approve of the way Congress is doing its job, while 53 percent disapprove. Such approval ratings have been registered throughout 2005, reflecting a level of discontent with Congress that rivals that of the tumultuous mid-1990's.

The Congressional approval rate among independents in the latest poll was just 32 percent.

If the elections were held today, 42 percent of registered voters said they would vote for the Democratic candidate in their district, while 33 percent said they would vote for the Republican.

Democrats had a substantial edge among independents, with 38 percent saying they would vote for the Democratic candidate, while 22 percent preferred the Republican. While the poll did not measure the races in individual districts, the findings are indicative of the two parties' relative strength.

The poll suggested that Republicans are not wrong to emphasize highly localized races focused on the strengths and familiarity of their incumbents. Sixty percent of all respondents said they approve of their own representative's job performance, while 24 percent disapprove.

Anxiety and doubt over the war in Iraq still pervade the political mood. More than half of those polled - 57 percent - said Congress is not asking enough questions about the president's policy in Iraq.

The increasingly bitter debate over the justification for the war is mirrored among the public. Only 23 percent said they believe that Mr. Bush, in the run-up to the war, was telling the entire truth about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Forty-five percent said Mr. Bush was mostly telling the truth on the weapons but hiding something, and 25 percent said the president was mostly lying.

Moreover, despite the Bush administration's intensive campaign in recent days to persuade the public that there is a "strategy for victory" in Iraq, the poll found widespread doubt. Asked if Mr. Bush has "a clear plan for victory in Iraq," 68 percent said he does not, and 25 percent said he does.

The war continues to be the main focus of Mr. Bush's critics. When asked why they disapproved of Mr. Bush's job performance, more than half mentioned Iraq. "We were taken in on the war," said Virginia Loarca, 29, a Democrat who works in customer service for an airline. "Too many kids are dying, and it's not being reported on how many body bags are actually coming back."

There was some positive news for Mr. Bush on Iraq: Approval of his handling of Iraq rose to 36 percent, from 32 percent in October. And more Americans said that going to war in Iraq was the right thing to do - 48 percent, compared with 42 percent in October. That increase in support came primarily from Republicans.

But even with that shift, Americans remain evenly divided on the war, with another 48 percent saying the United States should have stayed out of Iraq.

Fifty-eight percent said they want the United States to set a timetable for troop withdrawal, an idea opposed by Mr. Bush.

An overwhelming majority - 81 percent - said the Bush administration has not clearly explained how long American troops will have to remain in Iraq.

When asked what the United States should do now in Iraq, 32 percent said it should decrease American troop levels, while 28 percent said it should completely withdraw the troops. Twenty-four percent said troop levels should stay the same, while 11 percent backed an increase.

Not surprisingly, most Democrats and independents want troops decreased or completely withdrawn; most Republicans support maintaining or increasing the number of troops in Iraq.

Still, there are political risks for Democrats if they move too far toward their base: 36 percent of respondents (including a third of the independents) said they would be less likely to vote for their Congressional representative if he or she advocated an immediate withdrawal, while 21 percent said they would be more likely to vote for that official. Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader of the House, recently embraced a call for a speedy withdrawal.

Moreover, many Americans remain anxious about the impact of withdrawal, with 46 percent saying it would increase the likelihood of violence in Iraq and 40 percent saying it would increase the likelihood of terrorism against the United States.

As the parties head into the election year, the poll found voters giving Democrats the advantage on handling Medicare, the economy, the war in Iraq and immigration. Republicans continue to have the edge as the party best able to deal with terrorism.

But when voters were asked which party shares their moral values, the parties were nearly even - 43 percent said the Democrats, 41 percent said the Republicans.

Megan Thee and Marina Stefan contributed reporting for this article.

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