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     Sep 17, 2005
Confidence in Bush hits new lows
By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON - More than two weeks after Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans, US President George W Bush is looking increasingly like a political "lame duck", struggling hard to stay afloat on a rising tide of pessimism and popular discontent.

A series of polls published on the eve of a scheduled prime-time national address by Bush from New Orleans on Thursday evening shows public confidence in Bush's leadership, as well as his handling of a range of issues - from disaster relief to Iraq - has fallen to unprecedented lows, while the national mood has become distinctly negative.

Even more worrisome for Bush's hopes of retaining his political potency, the surveys show that moderate Republicans are

deserting his camp and that self-described independents say they intend to vote Democratic in next year's Congressional elections by a two-to-one margin.

According to one poll by the Pew Research Center for People & the Press, nearly half of all respondents want to see most members of the Republican-controlled Congress voted out next year - the highest level of dissatisfaction with the country's lawmakers in the past decade. Pew notes it was "exceeded only by pre-election polls in 1994", when, in a political earthquake, Republicans took control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years.

"[These results] suggest unstable days ahead in the Republican caucus," Republican pollster Bill McInturff told the media.

In an analysis of its own poll conducted with NBC News, the Wall Street Journal found that Republican lawmakers from the northeast and midwest will be under strong pressure to distance themselves from the president due to the high level of discontent in those two regions with his performance.

The new polls - all taken between September 8 and 13 - also suggested that Bush's vows to "stay the course" in Iraq and in the wider "global war on terror" may also be difficult to sustain if current attitudes persist.

While a slim majority (51%) of respondents in the Pew poll still believe US troops should remain in Iraq until the situation there is stabilized, a 55% majority in the Journal-NBC survey said the number of US troops in Iraq should be reduced. Fifty-seven percent of Pew respondents said they wanted to set a timetable for withdrawal - up from 49% in July.

Moreover, confidence in Bush's handling of Iraq has continued to deteriorate, particularly among Democrats and independents, according to Pew. Four in 10 voters now believe that Iraq is likely to turn out like Vietnam - up from 29% a year ago.

Among independents, however, the percentage has risen from 29 to a plurality of 46%. Moreover, a 58% majority of self-described moderate and liberal Republicans now favor a timetable up from 36% just two months ago.

The Journal-NBC poll also found that a plurality of four in 10 respondents said "reducing Iraq war spending" was the best way to finance recovery from the devastation caused by Katrina, when other options included repealing some income tax cuts, preserving the estate tax, cutting spending in other areas, or increasing the federal deficit.

"It's going to be very hard to just move straight forward on Iraq," Democratic pollster Peter Hart told the Journal.

Perhaps the most striking finding of both polls, as well as a third survey by the New York Times and CBS News published on Thursday, was the public's pessimistic mood and its growing lack of confidence in Bush's leadership.

The Times/CBS poll fond that more than six in 10 respondents say that Bush does not share their priorities for the country, and a similar percentage said the country was "pretty seriously" on the wrong track. Forty-five percent said Bush lacked "strong leadership qualities" - the highest percentage since the survey's sponsors first asked the question in 1999 when he was preparing his run for the presidency.

The Journal-NBC poll meanwhile found that the public is evenly split on its assessment of Bush's ability to handle a crisis - a stunning drop from just last January when he received positive marks for crisis management by a 56-28% margin. Similarly, those who rated his leadership qualities as "strong" have dropped from 52% nine months ago to 43% now.

The same poll found that the public has become particularly pessimistic about the economy, with 49% expecting that it will worsen over the next year, as opposed to 16% who said it would improve. In January, according to the survey, those figures were reversed.

Similarly, the Pew poll found a sharp growth in pessimism about the economy, particularly among independents. In January, 24% of independents said they thought the economy would get better over the following year, while 17% disagreed. But in the most-recent survey, more than three times as many independents expect economic conditions to worsen over the next year as expect them to improve (42% to 12%).

While confidence in the Democratic leadership in Congress is no better - and in some cases actually worse - than for Bush, according to the Pew survey, the party itself is widely seen as better able to handle a wide and growing range of policy issues. Pluralities say Democrats can deal more effectively with energy problems, social security, education, the economy, Iraq and major disasters.

The only issue on which the Republicans continue to do better than Democrats is on dealing with the terrorist threat at home. "But even here," according to Pew, the Republican's edge "has narrowed significantly."

Currently, Democrats hold a 52-40% lead for Congressional races, although, as in previous years, almost six in 10 voters said they plan to vote for the incumbent in their district and state.

If Democrats regain control of either or both houses next year, Bush's more radical social and economic agenda of partially privatizing social security and cutting taxes, particularly on the wealthy, would almost certainly not survive, according to most observers. Some believe the anticipated costs to the federal treasury associated with Katrina - at well over $100 billion - may already have dealt those initiatives a mortal blow.

(Inter Press Service)

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