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Poll shows drop in confidence on Bush skill in handling crises
( 2003-10-03 11:11) (Agencies)

The US public's confidence in President Bush's ability to deal wisely with an international crisis has slid sharply over the past five months, the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll has found. And a clear majority are also uneasy about his ability to make the right decisions on the nation's economy.

Over all, the poll found, Americans are for the first time more critical than not of Mr. Bush's ability to handle both foreign and domestic problems, and a majority say the president does not share their priorities. Thirteen months before the 2004 election, a solid majority of Americans say the country is seriously on the wrong track, a classic danger sign for incumbents, and only about half of Americans approve of Mr. Bush's overall job performance. That is roughly the same as when Mr. Bush took office after the razor-close 2000 election.

But more than 6 in 10 Americans still say the president has strong qualities of leadership, more than 5 in 10 say he has more honesty and integrity than most people in public life and 6 in 10 credit him with making the country safer from terrorist attack.

By contrast, the Democratic presidential contenders remain largely unknown, and nearly half of Americans ! and a like number of registered voters ! say the Democrats have no clear plan of their own for the country.

A summer of continuing attacks on American soldiers in Iraq, the failure so far to find weapons of mass destruction there and Mr. Bush's recent request for $87 billion to pay for military operations and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken a toll on public support for his administration's Iraq policy and on views of his ability to handle such issues in general.

The poll found that just 45 percent of Americans now have confidence in Mr. Bush's ability to deal wisely with an international crisis, down sharply from 66 percent in April, and half now say they are uneasy about his approach. Nearly 9 in 10 Americans say the war in Iraq is still going on, and 6 in 10 say the United States should not spend as much on the effort as Mr. Bush has sought. Three-quarters of Americans ! including a majority of Republicans ! say the administration has yet to clearly explain how long American troops will have to stay in Iraq, or how much it will cost to rebuild the country.

"I am very uneasy because of the war," said Joyce Austin, 69, a retired nurse's aide in Readstown, Wis., who was re-interviewed after the poll was conducted. "I don't think the Bush administration had a good plan for ending the war, and for what was going to happen afterward. I don't think they realized how much it was going to cost." Mrs. Austin paused and added, "Maybe they knew and just didn't tell us."

The nationwide telephone poll of 981 adults has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. The poll was taken Sunday through Wednesday and was in progress when the Justice Department announced it would investigate accusations that someone in the White House may have leaked the name of an undercover C.I.A. officer.

As the week progressed and news coverage of the investigation intensified, respondents were somewhat less likely to credit the Bush administration with bringing heightened honesty and integrity to the workings of the White House, compared with past administrations. In the end, just over one-third of the respondents said the administration had brought more honesty and integrity, while 18 percent said it had brought less and 43 percent said it was about the same as other administrations.

For months, Americans have been critical of Mr. Bush's handling of the national economy, and they remain so, with just one in five saying that the administration's policies have made their taxes go down, and a near-majority saying the policies have had no effect on them personally. Half of the respondents said that the federal tax cuts enacted since 2001 had not made much difference in the economy, and the rest were about evenly divided on whether the tax cuts were bad or good. Just 40 percent of voters expressed confidence in Mr. Bush's ability to make the right decisions about the economy, down from half in April, while 56 percent said they were uneasy, up from 42 percent in April.

During Mr. Bush's tenure, a majority of Americans say, jobs have been lost and not created, there has been no easing of the high cost of prescription drugs, and schools have not improved. Six in 10 Americans ! and 4 in 10 Republicans ! say the economy is worse than it was when Mr. Bush took office. Four in 10 of those polled were worried that someone in their household would lose his job in the next year.

Even worse news for the president was that Americans have also become critical of his handling of foreign policy, which had been been seen as his strength for most of his presidency. The latest survey found that 44 percent of those polled approved of Mr. Bush's overall handling of foreign policy, down from 52 percent in July, and that 47 percent approved of his handling of the situation in Iraq, down from 58 percent in July.

Polls last winter showed that public support for the president's decision to go to war in Iraq was sharply divided along partisan lines, with broad indications of reluctance. Now there are growing doubts about whether the results were worth the loss of life and other costs involved. Only 41 percent said it was, while 53 percent said it was not. When the question was asked using Saddam Hussein's name, the results were almost reversed, with about half those surveyed le saying it was worth removing him from power, and 41 percent saying it was not.

Over all, 51 percent of the respondents approved of Mr. Bush's performance. That is down from the high 80's after the Sept. 11 attacks, and from the high 60's at the beginning of the Iraq war. Just over 4 in 10 voters now have a favorable opinion of the president, compared with more than 6 in 10 in mid-2002, and just over 3 in 10 now have an unfavorable opinion compared with 2 in 10 in July 2002.

Nearly half said they believed that removing Mr. Hussein from power was the main reason for taking military action in Iraq. About a quarter said the main reason was to protect the oil supply, and one-fifth said the goal was to stop Iraq from manufacturing weapons.But only about 4 in 10 said they now believed that Mr. Hussein was personally involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, compared with about 5 in 10 who said so in April.

More than half of Americans said relations between the United States and its European allies were worse than when Mr. Bush took office, and fewer than half said leaders of other countries around the world had respect for Mr. Bush.

Mary Preble, 46, a registered nurse and a Republican in Sugar Land, Tex., said: "I don't feel George W. Bush has a grasp on what the public is really interested in." She added: "I wasn't happy about the invasion in Iraq. We shouldn't have attacked before anything was proven. There seem to be no nuclear weapons.

"Right now he is trying to rally everyone around to the cause and give money to rebuild Iraq. But why should other countries kick in cash when he didn't wait until the U.N. said we're behind you? The other countries don't believe he has the leadership skills he should have."

The poll showed an electorate that remains narrowly divided. When all registered voters were asked whom they would vote for next year, 44 percent said Mr. Bush and 44 percent said the Democratic candidate. But regardless of how they intend to vote, half of registered voters said they expected Mr. Bush to win.

While Mr. Bush's standing has fallen, the poll showed that the Democratic presidential contenders are still largely unknown, and a majority of those who are planning to vote in their states' Democratic primaries or caucus next year have not formed opinions of the candidates.

Opinions of Democratic primary voters are so unformed that the mere mention of a person's title changes the dynamic. When voters were asked which candidate they would choose, without mention of titles, 17 percent said Gen. Wesley K. Clark, 11 percent said Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and 10 percent said Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut. The other candidates were all in single digits.

"I think the Democrats have a plan, but I'm not sure what it is," Laurel Halsey, 34, a personnel manager in Oakland, Calif, said. "The Democrats' plan is never as clear as the Republicans' because the Republicans focus on the very narrow goal of laissez-faire government and capitalism. The Democrats try to incorporate a broader base of social issues."

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