Thursday, March 31, 2005

President Bush’s record-low approval ratings are a result primarily of public dissatisfaction with his handling of domestic issues that loom larger than foreign policy in his second term.

On issues such as immigration and controlling federal spending, Americans disapprove of the president’s approach by margins of at least 20 percent, according to Gallup. While they approve of his handling of terrorism by a similar margin, such foreign-policy issues have faded from the headlines in recent months.

“We don’t get caught up in the week-by-week polling that goes on,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters aboard Air Force One yesterday.

But the presidential spokesman went on to cite a “Gallup survey showing now that Social Security was at the top of the list in terms of the priorities that need to be addressed.”

Unfortunately for Mr. Bush, Gallup also found that only 35 percent of Americans approve of his handling of Social Security, compared with 56 percent who disapprove. While other surveys show greater approval of the president’s Social Security stance, he generally polls worse on domestic issues than foreign.

“The thing he did so well since 9/11 was terrorism, which was international,” said Frank Newport, Gallup editor in chief. “He never did as well on anything domestic as he did when it came to issues like protecting the U.S. from terrorism.”

With Americans now focusing more on economic issues such as the soaring price of gasoline, the president’s stature is beginning to suffer.

“Ratings of the economy are down,” Mr. Newport said. “To the degree that Americans don’t focus on terrorism or overseas, and do focus domestically, our data suggest Americans aren’t all that happy domestically at the moment.”

Pollster Matthew Dowd, who was chief strategist for the president’s re-election campaign, agreed.

“If you look at people’s satisfaction about where the country is, it’s dropped dramatically in the last month,” he said. “People are less worried about terrorism and more worried about their own situation at home — the price of gas, nervousness about the economy.”

Mr. Dowd said Americans also are expressing their dissatisfaction with Congress.

“The interesting thing is that this is not isolated to the president,” he said. “The country’s generally unhappy, and maybe they think the Terri Schiavo case is taking away from things that Congress or Washington ought to be working on.”

Indeed, polls have shown strong disapproval of intervention by Congress and the president in the case of Mrs. Schiavo, a brain-damaged Florida woman whose feeding tube was disconnected two weeks ago in a bitter family dispute.

According to Gallup, Mr. Bush’s overall approval rating is at 45 percent, the lowest of his presidency. His approval rating climbed to 90 percent after September 11, which was the highest level attained by any president in the 67-year history of such polling.

By comparison, the seven previous presidents each had approval ratings of 37 percent or lower at various points in their tenures. The lowest rating recorded was 23 percent for Harry S. Truman, who fell to that level twice during his time in office.

Some analysts blame Mr. Bush’s low approval ratings on his tendency to champion unpopular or controversial causes. But the president predicted the ultimate losers will be those who oppose his efforts to tackle tough issues such as Social Security reform.

“There’s a political price for not getting involved in the process,” he told a radio station in Iowa yesterday. “There’s a political price for saying, ‘It’s not a problem. I’m going to stay away from the table.’ ”

He was referring to widespread reluctance by Democrats to offer their own plan for Social Security reform.

“It’s pretty easy to ignore problems in politics. What’s hard is to take on a tough problem,” Mr. Bush said.

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