Despite a prime time address to the nation on Iraq and the annual State of the Union, President Bush’s political standing continues to erode in the latest public polls. Iraq is driving both the national political environment and the President’s continuing decline in public approval, and not even small but sustained gains in ratings of the economy and consumer confidence have provided any help to Bush. Democrats, on the other hand, have seen public approval spike since the election, and the early success and broad popularity of their legislative agenda has helped to reinforce those gains.
The new year has brought nothing but more bad news for President Bush and his increasingly tenuous political standing. There was some hope in Republican circles that Bush would be able to use the bully pulpit to shift the political environment onto more friendly terrain in January, but after both a prime-time address to the country on Iraq and the State of the Union address, attitudes toward Bush and the war in Iraq are more negative than at any previous point. Ratings of the economy have gradually climbed over the last several months, along with consumer confidence – the ABC/Washington Post Consumer Confidence Index is unchanged this week at -3, and the last three months represent its highest sustained level since a rally in Spring 2002 – but this has had no impact on the President’s political standing.
President Bush’s overall job approval continues to drop, with disapproval rising for the fourth straight month in January. This month’s approval mark was the lowest of his presidency – 34 percent approve, 61 percent disapprove – and his personal favorability, measured differently across many polling outlets, is at or near its lowest point in virtually every national poll conducted in January.
The war in Iraq continues to dominate the broader political environment, as well as attitudes toward President Bush. Americans oppose Bush’s troop surge proposal by a margin of approximately 2-to-1 across several polls conducted after his address to the nation on the issue, and disapproval of Bush’s handling of the situation in Iraq recently reached 70 percent in a Newsweek poll and 65 percent in a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg survey – both completed just before the State of the Union. The 2-to-1 margin opposing Bush is reflected in many measures of the war in Iraq across national polls, including whether it has been worth the cost and whether the war has made us safer. By an even larger margin (67 to 24 percent in the aforementioned Newsweek poll), Americans say we are losing ground rather than making progress in Iraq – a figure that has been remarkably stable for nearly four months now.
Tom Friedman and other commentators have recently advanced the notion that the country effectively ‘fired’ George W. Bush in the mid-term elections of 2006 and is now essentially looking beyond his administration – to a new Democratic Congress and, in two years, to a new president – for the changes they seek. The most recent Newsweek poll (conducted entirely after the State of the Union) supports this analysis, with 58 percent of Americans (including 59 percent of Independents and more than 1-in-5 Republicans) saying they wish that Bush’s presidency was already over and 71 percent expressing the belief that he “will not have enough support over the next two years to make a difference in getting things done in Washington.”
In sharp contrast to President Bush and the Republican Party, attitudes toward Democrats have increased significantly since the 2006 election. In 1994, attitudes toward Republicans grew increasingly positive as they attacked the Democratic majority and positioned themselves as the alternative. In 2006, ratings of Democrats remained near historic lows, even as public attitudes toward Republicans continued to plummet and the election neared. However, since the election, ratings of the Democratic Party and Democrats in Congress have spiked – a net gain of 13 points in the mid-December NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll (the last media poll measuring favorability toward the two parties) and 18 points in our own Democracy Corps polling since the election – up to 46 percent favorable, 33 percent unfavorable for the Democratic Party and 45 percent favorable, 28 percent unfavorable for the Democratic Congress in the latest survey. These shifts represent a clear signal of continuing public approval of the election results and support for the early steps taken by the new Democratic Congress.
It is important to note the historical context of the current situation. Democrats’ current favorability is essentially equal to the Republicans’ standing after their victory in 1994, and there are obvious parallels between the recent success of House Democrats’ 100 Hours effort and the early efforts of the Gingrich Congress to advance their Contract With America. But the Republicans’ subsequent failure to transform their historic victory into electoral gains in the presidential election in 1996 or to create a sustainable governing majority serves as a warning for the current Democratic leadership. Fortunately for today’s Democrats, they face a president and a Republican Party (35 percent favorable, 45 percent unfavorable in last week’s Democracy Corps poll) with much lower ratings from voters than President Clinton or even the beleaguered Democratic Party faced after 1994.