Bush battered by US pessimism, leadership doubts
WASHINGTON, Mar 16 (Reuters) Deep doubts about the Iraq war and pessimism about America's future have shattered public confidence in President George W. Bush and helped drive his approval ratings to their lowest level ever, pollsters say.
As Bush launched a series of speeches to drum up support for the war, a new round of opinion polls found growing skepticism about Iraq and distrust of Bush. His image declined sharply, with one poll finding ''incompetent'' to be the most frequent description of his leadership.
Bush's approval rating dipped as low as 33 per cent in one recent poll after a string of bad news for the White House, including uproars over a now-dead Arab port deal, a secret eavesdropping program, a series of ethics scandals involving high-profile Republicans and a bungled response to Hurricane Katrina.
The political storm has left Bush's second-term legislative agenda in tatters, threatened Republican control of the US Congress in November's elections and shredded his personal image as an effective leader.
''His strong points as a president were being seen as personally credible, as a strong leader. That has all but disappeared,'' said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, whose latest independent poll found a dramatic decline in Bush's credibility.
A majority of Americans, 56 per cent, believe Bush is ''out of touch,'' the poll found. When asked for a one-word description of Bush, the most frequent response was ''incompetent,'' followed by ''good,'' ''idiot'' and ''liar.'' In February 2005, the most frequent reply was ''honest.'' ''The transformation from being seen as honest to being seen as incompetent is an extraordinary indicator of how far he has fallen,'' Kohut said.
Bush's slump is deep enough to put Republican majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives at risk, pollsters said. Democrats must gain 15 House seats and six Senate seats to regain power in each chamber.
''It's not the environment that we want to be running in,'' Republican pollster David Winston said. ''Republicans can still hold the House and the Senate, but it's becoming increasingly more complicated.'' In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, 61 per cent said the Iraq war would be a very important or the most important issue in deciding their vote for Congress. As the third anniversary of the invasion approaches, they preferred Democrats over Republicans in handling Iraq by 48 to 40 per cent.
WAR 'A BIG ISSUE' ''I think it is a big issue,'' House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio said. ''When the country is at war there is a certain unsettling that occurs with people around the country, as you might expect.'' Boehner said the anxiety over Iraq was coloring the public's view on other issues like the economy, which he said is performing well.
''People don't look at the president's handling of the economy very well, and frankly I think it is a result of this anxiety over the fact that we are at war,'' he said.
A recent CBS poll found 66 per cent of the public believed the country was headed down the wrong track, while a Harris Interactive poll put the number at 60 per cent.
Views on Iraq and the war on terrorism were equally pessimistic, with 67 percent of respondents in the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll saying Bush did not have a clear plan for handling Iraq.
Independent pollster Dick Bennett of American Research Group said Bush's failure to acknowledge public anxieties added to his troubles.
''The biggest problem the White House faces is reconnecting with people. People simply aren't buying it anymore,'' Bennett said. ''People can see for themselves that things actually are not fine.'' Bush's ratings are still above historical lows recorded since Gallup started presidential polling after World War Two.
The approval ratings for Harry Truman, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon and the first George Bush, the current president's father, all dropped into the 20s.
REUTERS OM KP2336