Public Says $87 Billion Too Much

_____Post-ABC Poll_____

By Richard Morin and Dan Balz

Washington Post Staff Writers

Sunday, September 14, 2003; Page A01


A majority of Americans disapprove of President Bush's request to Congress for an additional $87 billion to fund military and reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan over the next year, amid growing doubts about the administration's policies at home and abroad, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Six in 10 Americans said they do not support the proposal, which the president announced in his nationally televised address last Sunday night. That marks the most significant public rejection of a Bush initiative on national security or terrorism since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In a second rebuff to the administration, more Americans said that, if Congress decides to approve the additional money, lawmakers should roll back the president's tax cuts to pay for the increased spending, rather than add to the federal budget deficit or cut government spending.

The survey findings send a clear signal that many Americans are unwilling to give the administration a blank check on peacekeeping efforts in Iraq, despite continued strong backing for Bush's decision to go to war and public support for staying there to help stabilize and rebuild that nation.

The president's overall job approval rating remains stable and relatively strong, a reflection of broad confidence in his leadership despite increasing concerns about his policies. Fifty-eight percent approve of the job he is doing as president, while 40 percent disapprove.

Bush's approval ratings on the war against terrorism and homeland security also remain strong. But on many domestic issues, he has fallen to the lowest point of his presidency, from his handling of the economy and health care to the federal budget.

Declining approval ratings on important issues suggest that the president may be vulnerable in his bid for reelection next year. Matched against a generic Democrat, the poll found Bush at 49 percent and a Democratic nominee at 44 percent.

However, when pitted against any of several Democratic candidates running for their party's nomination, Bush is the clear choice. None of the Democratic candidates has emerged as a significant challenger and, according to the poll, Bush comfortably leads all four tested, generally by a margin of about 15 percentage points. At this early stage of the campaign, few of these candidates' positions are widely known to the public.

A total of 1,104 randomly selected adults were interviewed between Sept. 10 and Sept. 13 for this survey. The margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

A majority of Republicans -- 57 percent -- said they support Bush's $87 billion spending request for Iraq and Afghanistan; but 81 percent of Democrats and 64 percent of independents said they are opposed. Still, leading congressional Democrats and many of the presidential candidates say they are likely to support the funding. On the question of how to pay for the request, a majority of Democrats said roll back some of the tax cuts while a plurality of Republicans said cut other spending.

The partisan divide on Iraq spending is nearly matched by a gender gap. While seven in 10 women oppose Bush's $87 billion request, a slim majority of men -- 53 percent -- rejects it.

The public's judgment of the way Bush is handling international affairs has never been lower, the Post-ABC News poll found. Slightly more than half -- 53 percent -- approve of the president's policies abroad, a precipitous fall from 67 percent barely two months ago.

That finding comes amid growing criticism, particularly from Democrats, that despite U.S. success in routing the Taliban in Afghanistan and driving Iraqi president Saddam Hussein from power, Bush has damaged relations with many allies and has caused the United States to lose the respect of countries around the world.

Declining support for Bush's policies in Iraq also has contributed to the overall erosion of support for his foreign policy. Barely half -- 52 percent -- said they approved of the way the president is handling the situation in Iraq, down slightly from a month ago and a 23-point decline since the war ended in April.

The overwhelming majority of Americans believe the United States should stay in Iraq, even if it means suffering continued military casualties, but the proportion who favor getting out has increased from 27 percent to 32 percent since late August.

At the same time, a 55 percent majority doubts Bush has a clear plan about what to do in Iraq, and more than eight in 10 -- 85 percent -- now fear the United States will get bogged down in a long and costly peacekeeping effort there, up from 76 percent in less than three weeks.

The latest round of violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and growing political instability in the area, have further soured public perceptions of Bush's foreign policy. Just 46 percent of the public now approve of the way Bush is handling the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, an 8-point drop since April and the first time Bush's rating on this measure has fallen below 50 percent.

Bush faces growing disquiet at home, as well. Despite recent good news on the economic front, 56 percent disapprove of the job Bush is doing handling the economy -- the highest negative rating on this key measure since he took office.

Nearly six in 10 disapprove of his handling of the federal budget, which will post a record deficit next year of at least $480 billion, according to forecasts, and half the country believes most Americans are worse off now than they were when Bush took office. Still, less than a third say that they personally are not doing as well as they were two years ago.

More than six in 10 are critical of the way Bush is dealing with the health care issue, again a new high in disapproval. For the first time, more than half of the public -- 54 percent -- said they disapproved of the job Bush is doing handling prescription drugs for the elderly. That could be a galvanizing issue for seniors as the presidential election year approaches, with Republicans in Congress still stymied from completing work on a Medicare drug bill by differences among themselves, despite the desire of White House officials to win passage heading into 2004.

As the election year approaches, no single issue clearly dominates the public's agenda.

The economy, education, federal spending, homeland security, and health care top the list, a mix of concerns that offers hope to the president and to his Democratic challengers.

When asked which is more important, jobs and the economy or the war on terrorism, roughly six in 10 say jobs and the economy. At the time of the 2002 midterm elections, in which Republicans scored significant victories, voters judged the economy as only marginally more important than terrorism.

Looking at the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination, the Post-ABC News poll found that Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000, continues to lead the field of candidates, with 22 percent support among self-described Democrats.

Lieberman's nearest challengers were bunched together with 14 percent each: Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.), Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) and former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who leads in several polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the race is more developed. Support was in single digits for all other candidates, including retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who is expected to decide this week whether to join the race.

Interest in the Democratic race has increased substantially since the spring, and there appears to be general satisfaction among Democrats with the field of candidates.

Assistant director of polling Claudia Deane contributed to this report.



© 2003 The Washington Post Company