Losing Ground
A NEWSWEEK poll shows President Bush's approval rating dropping to new lows on domestic issues and rising public anger over Iraq and homeland security.

By Christopher Dickey
Updated: 11:31 a.m. ET March 18, 2006

March 18, 2006 - A bitterly divided electorate gives President George W. Bush an approval rating of only 36 percent in the latest NEWSWEEK poll, matching the low point in his presidency recorded last November. His image as an effective leader in the war on terror is tarnished, with less than half the public (44 percent) approving of the way he’s handling terrorism and homeland security. Despite a series of presidential speeches meant to bolster support for the war in Iraq, as well as the announcement of a major military offensive when the poll was getting under way, only 29 percent of the people questioned approved Bush’s handling of the situation in Iraq. Fully 65 percent disapprove.

The way the president has dealt with issues at home hasn't brought him much support either. His approval ratings for the handling of energy policy (28 percent) and health care (28 percent) were new lows, while approval on the economy (36 percent) mirrored his overall rating. The single area where President Bush accrued more approval than disapproval was in his appointments to the Supreme Court, which 47 percent approved.

The outright anger against Bush felt by many Americans was reflected in responses to questions about the effort of Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin to censure Bush in Congress for his warrantless wiretapping program. Feingold has found very little support for his move on the Hill. Four in 10 (42 percent) of the adults in the general public say they would support Congressional censure of the president, while half (50 percent) say they would not. Censure wins majority support from Democrats (60 percent) and one in five Republicans (20 percent) say they’d support it. Yet if Democrats in Congress do decide to push for such a measure, they may run into trouble with that same public. By a margin of 53 percent to 33 percent, Americans feel the censure proposal was made as a partisan ploy, not for reasons of principle.

In today’s strongly polarized political climate, roughly one in four American adults (26 percent) say they think Congress should actually impeach President Bush and consider removing him from office. There is in fact no effort to do this on the Hill, and the public mood appears to be more a reflection of the passionate sentiment against Bush in some quarters rather than considered support for actual legislative action. (Some recent national polls show about 45 percent of adults strongly disapprove of the president’s performance.) The NEWSWEEK poll shows that only 5 percent of Republicans would support impeaching Bush, while 94 percent would not. Among Democrats, almost half (49 percent) support impeachment, while 48 percent oppose it. Overall, 69 percent do not think Congress should consider removing him from office.

By comparison, the level of public support for impeachment today is below the 32 percent support for Bill Clinton’s removal in October 1998, before he was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives. Support for the impeachment of Richard M. Nixon had reached 52 percent in a June 1974 Harris poll shortly before he left office.

A much less radical response to sagging confidence in President Bush—a major staff shake-up in the White House—gets a mixed response from the public. While 40 percent think it is time for the president to clean house and ask some top people to leave, 48 percent think it is best to avoid making major changes to the White House staff at this time. Only 20 percent of Republicans favor a major staff shake-up, compared with 43 percent of Independents and 56 percent of Democrats. Unhappiness with President Bush’s cabinet and staff apparently is not as great as dissatisfaction with the president himself.

All of this bodes ill for the Republicans as midterm congressional elections approach this fall, although some Democratic strategists are concerned that the censure resolution and impeachment talk may actually make for an unwanted distraction. Registered voters continue to prefer Democratic candidates for Congress over GOP candidates by a margin of 50 percent to 39 percent.

This is the third of four NEWSWEEK polls taken since September 2005 showing the Democrats with a double-digit lead. The Democrats never had such an advantage in any NEWSWEEK poll conducted before the last two off-year Congressional elections, 2002 and 1998. The Democrats now lead in Congressional vote preferences of Independents by 47 percent to 31 percent. Key to the election outcome is whether the Democrats’ big advantage with independent voters will be maintained and how many of these voters will actually turn out in November.

Both houses of Congress are now controlled by the Republicans, but public opinion now favors a Democratic takeover this November by a margin of 50 percent to 34 percent. Among Independents, the Democrats are preferred by more than a two-to-one margin: 51 percent to 22 percent.

Low as Bush’s approval ratings are at the moment, three of the last six U.S. presidents actually had ratings below Bush’s current score at some point in their presidencies. His father, George H.W. Bush, saw his rating decline to 29 percent in August 1992, amid growing economic woes. Jimmy Carter slipped to 28 percent in July 1979 during the Iran hostage crisis, and Richard Nixon plunged to 23 percent in January 1974, the year he resigned his office as a result of the Watergate scandal.

Survey Methodology
This poll was carried out by Princeton Survey Research Associates International. Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,020 adults, 18 and older, conducted March 16-17, 2005. Results are weighted so that the sample demographics match Census Current Population Survey parameters for gender, age, education, race, region, and population density. The overall margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points for results based on total adults and plus or minus 4 for results based on 800 registered voters. Results based on smaller subgroups are subject to larger margins of sampling error. In addition to sampling error, the practical difficulties of conducting surveys can also introduce error or bias to poll results.