April 18, 2003

Modest Bush Approval Rating Boost at War’s End

Economy Now Top National Issue

Summary of Findings

President Bush’s overall job approval rating has risen only slightly in recent days, even as increasing numbers believe that the war in Iraq has been won. The president’s current rating is 72%, statistically unchanged from 74% immediately after the fall of Baghdad, but notably higher than his prewar approval rating of 55%. But his approval mark has not yet come close to matching President George H.W. Bush’s peak approval score of 89% after the successful conclusion of the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

The latest Pew Research Center survey of 924 Americans, conducted April 10-16, shows Bush’s ratings to be more deeply divided along partisan lines than his father’s were after the Gulf war. Republicans are nearly unanimous in supporting the president, as they were in backing Bush Sr. in 1991 (97%, 96% respectively). But Democrats are split over job performance, with a slim majority (52%) giving him a positive rating. After the Gulf war, Democrats backed Bush’s father by a four-to-one margin (72%-18%). Independents also give the president lower ratings than his father after the Gulf war (68% now, 83% then).

The new poll also finds no indications to date of significant political gains for the president. Just under half of registered voters (48%) say they would like to see him reelected president in 2004, while a third say they would prefer to see a Democratic candidate win. That is a modest improvement from a mid-March Gallup survey, which showed 45% saying they wanted to see Bush reelected, and 42% favoring a Democrat.

The percentage of Americans who say the U.S. has won the war with Iraq has been growing steadily as military operations wind down. Since April 10, the number saying the war has been won has grown from a low of 32% to a majority of 52% in overnight interviewing conducted April 16. A similar trend is seen in ratings of the military effort. Over the past week, 61% have said the military operation is going very well, and another 32% think it is going fairly well.

Within days of the fall of Baghdad, and for the first time since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the domestic economy has once again come to dominate the public’s political agenda. Fully 41% cite the economy, unemployment, or the budget deficit as the biggest problem facing the nation ­ just 29% mention issues related to war, foreign policy, or terrorist threats, down from 54% in February. And while the war in Iraq still dominates the news, the public is divided over what should be at the top of the president’s agenda ­ 42% say the situation in Iraq, 36% say the domestic economy (another 19% volunteer that both are equally important).

An overwhelming majority (74%) continues to support the military action in Iraq and the president’s leadership on this issue, while a minority of about 20% has, since the start of the conflict, consistently said the war in Iraq was the wrong thing to do. The public approves of the president’s handling of Iraq by more than four-to-one (77% to 17% disapproval).

The latest survey finds that the war has prevented Democratic candidates from gaining much exposure. Only 32% of Americans could offer a name when asked who was running for the Democratic nomination in 2004, down slightly from 35% in January. At present, Sen. John Kerry leads the familiarity race with 11% recalling his name, followed by Sen. Joe Lieberman (8%), Rep. Dick Gephardt (5%), Sen. John Edwards (4%), Rev. Al Sharpton (4%) and former Gov. Howard Dean (2%).

The Democratic Party also lags in overall favorability. Currently, 63% of Americans say they have a favorable view of the Republican Party, 57% say the same about the Democrats.

Opinions on the war, as well as post-war period issues, remain highly partisan. While Republicans nearly unanimously support the war (94% to 2%), Democrats are far more divided, with 60% saying war was the right decision and 31% the wrong one. Democrats also are far more concerned about the potential costs of the war than are Republicans. Roughly half of Democrats (47%) worry a great deal that the costs of the war in Iraq will be difficult for us to afford, compared with just 19% of Republicans. Democrats also are much more likely than Republicans (49% to 30%) to say the United Nations should have the most say in how a stable government is established in Iraq. Four-in-ten Republicans say the U.N. should have no role in the process at all.

Other Findings

1. The public is divided over the question of whether it is necessary to capture or kill Saddam Hussein in order to win the war, with 49% saying yes and 45% saying it is sufficient to remove him from power. Interestingly, opinion on this question is unrelated to the public’s verdict about the war. Respondents who think U.S. forces must kill or capture Saddam are no more or less likely to say the U.S. has already won than those who say it’s enough to remove him from power.

2. Most Americans (61%) give the military positive ratings for reducing crime and bringing civil order to Iraq, but a significant minority has been critical of the military’s performance in this regard. Nearly a quarter (24%) rate the military’s performance in this area as “only fair” and 8% say the military has done a poor job.

3. Despite the success of the war, the public remains worried about two aspects of the endgame: the possibility of an ongoing guerrilla war against U.S. forces, and the overall cost of the war. About one-fifth (22%) say they worry a great deal about guerrilla warfare, and another 45% worry a fair amount about this. One-third (33%) worry a great deal about the cost of the war, and another 38% worry a fair amount.

4. As the war winds down, most of the public sees a difficult task ahead in creating a stable and democratic government in Iraq: 58% think it will be somewhat difficult and 21% think it will be very difficult. And most people (64%) think the United Nations should play a significant role in this process. Overall, half (50%) say the U.S. and its allies should have the most say or the only say, while 39% think the U.N. should have the biggest voice.

5. Democrats and Republicans are equally likely to say they can’t name any candidates for the Democratic nomination (69% and 68%, respectively). While the differences between parties are fairly small, John Kerry, Joseph Lieberman and Dick Gephardt are mentioned slightly more frequently by Republicans than Democrats, while Democrats more often name Al Gore, John Edwards and Al Sharpton as possible candidates.