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Bush faces decline in approval ratings

From Social Security to Terri Schiavo to sinking polls, Bush fights for public faith amid the perils of a second term.

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Bush himself took to the Rose Garden Tuesday to deliver remarks on freedom and democracy, with an audience of Iraqis and Iraqi-Americans. In general, Republican strategists say, Bush can help himself most by keeping his eye on the ball and sticking with his goals.

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"You can't change your fundamental agenda, based on week-to-week variations in public opinion polls," says GOP pollster Whit Ayres. "A real leader doesn't do that. A real leader sets some ambitious goals ... and has faith that if they are valuable goals to pursue, public opinion will come along."

After all, he and other Republicans say, the second term is only two months old and there is plenty of time to make progress on Social Security reform. Mr. Ayres, who has polled on Social Security, says the president is correct in continuing to focus on educating the public about the problem. The greater the understanding of two key facts - that the president's plan would not affect benefits for seniors and that participation in personal accounts would be voluntary - the greater the support for Bush's proposal.

On the other side

Among all the polling data, the silver lining for Bush and the GOP is that the Democratic leadership in Congress is just as unpopular as the Republican congressional leadership. The latest Pew Research Center poll, released March 24, shows Bush's approval rating at 45 percent, the Republican leadership at 39 percent, and the Democratic leadership at 37 percent.

In fact, rank-and-file Democrats are less happy with their party leadership (56 percent) than are rank-and-file Republicans (76 percent), according to Pew. So clearly, the Democrats cannot count on gaining from any Republican or presidential misfortune. This generalized dissatisfaction with politicians is not unusual, says Jim Guth, a political scientist at Furman University in Greenville, S.C.

"It isn't always a zero-sum game, where someone loses and someone else gains," says Professor Guth. "Sometimes everyone loses. There's not an assumption among the public that if the president is doing badly, the Democrats must be doing something right. It's that Washington is not doing well, and that includes the Democrats."

In the Pew poll, Americans give Congress low marks for working across party lines: Only 18 percent say that's going well. Only 23 percent say Congress is doing well at dealing with important issues, and only 23 percent say Congress is acting ethically. The percentage who support Bush's goal of introducing personal accounts into Social Security has declined. Now 44 percent approve of that idea, down from 46 percent last month and 54 percent in December.

On the administration's plan to allow oil- and gas-drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, 42 percent are supportive and 46 percent oppose, Pew says.