Washington Despite a clear-cut re-election and the prospect of lasting GOP dominance in Congress, President Bush prepares to kick off his second term with the lowest approval ratings of any just-elected sitting president in a half-century, according to a series of new surveys.
That distinction, which pollsters and analysts blame on public discontent about the war in Iraq, comes as Bush begins drafting two major speeches that could recast his image: an inaugural address Jan. 20 and the State of the Union days later. Bracketed between them is the Jan. 30 election in Iraq, another milestone that could affect public impressions of Bush.
His performance in those speeches and the outcome of the Iraqi vote could determine whether Bush regains the momentum of his Nov. 2 election victory in time to push through controversial initiatives such as revamping Social Security, rewriting the tax code, limiting lawsuits and trimming the budget deficit, analysts said.
A new Gallup survey conducted for CNN and USA Today puts Bush's approval rating at 49 percent, close to his pre-election numbers. That's 10 to 20 percentage points lower than every elected sitting president at this stage since World War II, according to Gallup.
Bush's Gallup rating echoed a survey published last week by ABC News and The Washington Post, which put his approval rating at 48 percent. That poll also found that 56 percent of Americans said the Iraq war was not worth fighting. Time magazine put Bush's overall approval at 49 percent.
"The question is, what happened to the honeymoon?" said Frank Newport, editor of the Gallup survey.
Bush has outlined an ambitious second-term agenda that will require support from skeptical Republicans and Democrats alike on Capitol Hill. He must be able to show continued support from the public, or members of Congress facing re-election in 2006 will be wary.
"If his approval rating falls, regardless of his winning the election, it's going to hurt his ability to convince Congress," said Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist. "Republicans have the majority and can do almost whatever they want if they stay together, but it's going to make it harder for them to get some bipartisan support for these initiatives."