WASHINGTON – The American public is deeply ambivalent about President Bush (search) as he begins his second term and his approval rating is lower than any recent two-term presidents, a troubling sign for his ambitious agenda, an Associated Press poll found.
Bush's approval rating is at 49 percent in the AP poll with 49 percent disapproving. His job approval is in the high 40s in several other recent polls — as low as any job approval rating for a re-elected president at the start of the second term in more than 50 years.
Presidents Reagan and Clinton had job approval ratings near six in 10 just before their inauguration for a second term, according to Gallup polls.
President Nixon's approval was in the 60s right after his 1972 re-election, slid to about 50 percent right before his inauguration and then moved back over 60 percent. President Eisenhower's job approval was in the low 70s just before his second inauguration in 1957.
Bush and Congress are about to tackle ambitious projects — creating private accounts for those in the Social Security (search) system, overhauling the federal tax code (search) and limiting lawsuit damages. Those tasks will be all the more difficult with the tepid poll ratings for both Bush and Congress.
About four in 10, 41 percent, approve of the job Congress is doing, while 53 percent disapprove, according to the poll conducted for the AP by Ipsos Public Affairs.
The nation's sharply partisan split is responsible for Bush's job ratings.
Republicans overwhelmingly approve of Bush's job performance and Democrats overwhelmingly disapprove — a split found to a lesser extent in the congressional numbers.
Only one in six Democrats say they approve of Bush's job performance, the poll found. In January 2002, six in 10 Democrats approved of the job done by Bush, contributing to an overall job approval rating near 80 percent four months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In January of last year, about one-quarter of Democrats approved of the job done by Bush.
Rick Dickinson, a cabinet maker from Charlottesville, Va., and a Democrat, said he liked what he saw from Bush after the terrorist attacks, but those feelings have faded.
"I thought he did generally well after 9/11. He was decisive and he had some great momentum," Dickinson said. "But now I basically disapprove of him. The war troubles me. He picks a plan — regardless of the information — and he goes with it."
Bush has intense support from Republicans, which has kept him on an even keel or above for months. More than nine in 10 Republicans said they approve of Bush's job performance.
"I very strongly support what he's been doing," said Cheryl McGauvran, a teacher in a Christian school who says she lives in the desert southeast of Los Angeles. "If we had somebody in office who waffled we would be in trouble. It's almost better to be wrong and then correct it, than to vacillate and be stomped."
People were evenly divided on Bush's handling of the economy. They take a dim view of his handling of Iraq, with 44 percent approving and 54 percent disapproving, according to the poll of 1,001 adults. It was taken Jan. 3-5 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Even on Bush's strongest area, handling foreign policy and the war on terrorism, people were evenly split — with 50 percent approving and 48 percent disapproving.
For much of the last year, the public has been fairly evenly divided on Bush's job approval. He was still able to win about 60 million votes — a record number but just 51 percent of votes cast — at a time most people thought the country was headed down the wrong track.
Bush's willingness to pursue policies even if unpopular is appealing to some voters.
Gene Kuterboch, a state worker who lives in Stowe, Pa., says he's been a Democrat all his life, but he voted for Bush this time because Democrat John Kerry "seemed to be following the polls."
"I voted for President Bush because I think he took a stand after what went on with the terrorist attacks," Kuterboch said. "We need a leader."