by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- A series of polls shows public confidence in President Bush's leadership 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 the People and 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 those findings were "exceeded only by pre-election polls in 1994," when 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 Wall Street Journal.
In an analysis of its own poll conducted with NBC News, the Journal found that Republican lawmakers from the Northeast and Midwest will be under strong pressure to distance themselves from the president because of the high level of discontent in those two regions with his performance.
The new polls, taken between Sept. 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 percent) of respondents in the Pew poll still believes U.S. troops should remain in Iraq until the situation there is stabilized, a 55 percent majority in the Journal-NBC survey said the number of U.S. troops in Iraq should be reduced. Fifty-seven percent of Pew respondents said they wanted to set a timetable for withdrawal -- up from 49 percent 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 percent a year ago.
Among independents, however, the percentage has risen from 29 to a plurality of 46 percent. Moreover, a 58 percent majority of self-described moderate and liberal Republicans now favor a timetable -- up from 36 percent just two months ago.
The Journal-NBC poll also found that a plurality of four in 10 respondents said "reduc(ing) Iraq war spending" was the best way to finance recovery from the devastation caused by Hurricane 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 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 percent margin. Similarly, those who rated his leadership qualities as "strong" have dropped from 52 percent nine months ago to 43 percent now.
The same poll found that the public has become particularly pessimistic about the economy, with 49 percent expecting that it will worsen over the next year, as opposed to 16 percent 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 percent of independents said they thought the economy would get better over the following year, while 17 percent 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 percent to 12 percent).
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 percent 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.
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