Mideast crisis dents Bush's record-high approval ratings

A Monitor/Tipp poll shows that sixty percent of Americans worry that the Mideast crisis could hamper the recovery of the US economy.

Everyone knew it couldn't last.

The president with the longest run at 80-plus job approval ratings is being gradually pulled toward earth. Interestingly, however, it's not the economy that's tugging at his phenomenal popularity, but foreign affairs – an area that often fails to register with Americans.

Since January, the president has suffered a 13-point drop in his foreign-policy approval rating – the single biggest drop for any issue. By contrast, his ratings for the economy fell by only 2 points, according to a recent poll by TIPP for this newspaper and another by NBC News/Wall Street Journal.

While still standing tall with an overall job-approval score of 74, the slippage reveals a potential danger area for the president, analysts say. Indeed, Democrats like Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut are now boldly criticizing his handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"The more there's a sense that things are in flux and things are difficult, the more that wears on how we feel about the country. And how we feel about the country wears on the president," says Peter Hart, who helped conduct the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll April 5-7.

Pollsters agree that part of the drag on the president's ratings is the natural pull of gravity on unsustainably high approval.

"This is a natural trend back ... to a somewhat realistic level. My guess is it's going to slide down somewhat [more] as partisans return to their normal disapproval status," says Matthew Dowd, the Republican National Committee pollster who also conducts surveys for the White House.

But Mr. Dowd argues that the president's handling of foreign affairs has nothing to do with his ratings deflation, and that's where other public-opinion experts disagree.

"The public is paying close attention, and his failure to bring about results in the Middle East so far is clearly a factor in his decline of approval," says Steven Kull, an expert on public opinion and international issues at the University of Maryland.

Usually, shifts in foreign policy produce the mildest of blips on the public's radar screen, if they show up at all. They can pull down a president's standing, as did the Balkans, Haiti and Somalia with Bill Clinton. But it's only when US national security is directly at stake that they can be a president's undoing. Case in point: Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War.

With a war on terrorism and a Middle East crisis that could spread, upset oil supplies, or bring more suicide terrorism to the U.S., the public is now closely following events overseas. According to the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 54 percent of Americans believe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will lead to a wider war.

And the Monitor/TIPP poll found that 60 percent of Americans worry that the Arab-Israeli crisis will negatively affect the US economic recovery. The reason for the economic concern is oil, says Raghavan Mayur, president of TIPP, a unit of TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence that conducts the Monitor poll. "With the backdrop of our experience with the long gas lines in 1973, an intense Middle East crisis such as the current one takes on new meaning."

Despite the public's interest – and concern – about the Middle East, however, the president has a lot of flexibility with this issue, analysts explain.

If he brings peace to the region, all the better, but no American president before him has solved the Palestinian-Israeli riddle, and no one expects him to do so now, they say. "I think he has a tremendous amount of latitude," says Mr. Hart. "But it doesn't mean that he can afford to take a pass on it."

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