A week of unrelenting bad news for President George Bush was capped yesterday by a new poll showing that Americans are losing faith in his ability to handle foreign policy crises - something the White House had expected to be a major asset as he prepares his 2004 re-election campaign.
According to a New York Times/CBS survey, not only does a majority of the population disapprove of his handling of the economy - which has been plagued by slow growth and stubbornly high unemployment - for the first time a majority, albeit a slender one of 45 to 44 per cent, does not like his handling of foreign policy. Fifty-six per cent feel the country is "on the wrong track" while 53 per cent doubt whether the Iraq war has been worth the cost.
Mr Bush still has strong cards, including a continuing public faith in his leadership qualities, his honesty, and the feeling that he has made the country safer. But the poll shows that because of the disorder in Iraq, the feeble economy and the gathering scandal over the leaking of the name of a CIA operative, he has suddenly become vulnerable. The poll was being conducted when the Justice Department announced it was opening a criminal investigation into the leak.
For the first time, Mr Bush's overall ratings have slid back to where they were before 11 September 2001. By historical standards, his approval figure of about 50 per cent at this stage in the election cycle is fairly good. But it is far below the sustained 80 per cent level after the terrorist attacks, and the 70 per cent approval immediately after the invasion of Iraq.
Most ominously, Bush the son is following the same path as Bush the father. In the early autumn of 1991, at the same point in his presidency, George Bush Snr basked in an approval rating of 68 per cent. A year later he was on the verge of defeat by Bill Clinton.
For the first time, hypothetical match-ups show Mr Bush being beaten by two of the 10 Democratic presidential contenders. Retired General Wesley Clark, who entered the race just a fortnight ago, is ahead of the 43rd President by 49 per cent to 46 per cent, while Senator John Kerry, of Massachusetts, beats him by 48 to 47.
These figures reflect opinion before the row over the alleged leak by the White House of the name of Valerie Plame, a CIA employee and wife of the former ambassador Joseph Wilson, a vigorous critic of the Bush administration's policy over Iraq.
FBI agents began interviewing officials at the White House yesterday in an inquiry which will also involve the State and Defence Departments and the CIA itself. A new Justice Department request for materials connected with the investigation was issued on Thursday night. State Department and Pentagon officials said they had been asked to "look at our calendars and documents".
The prime suspect is Karl Rove, Mr Bush's senior adviser and key strategist. Mr Rove denies the allegations.
Democrats are demanding an independent investigation, arguing that links between the Attorney General, John Ashcroft, and Mr Rove amount to a clear conflict of interest.
This first criminal investigation of the Bush presidency will revive memories of the scandal-ridden Clinton era, and undermine another Bush selling point, his reputation for integrity in office.
The President's rocky ride is having other repercussions. On Thursday evening renegade Republicans in the normally tightly disciplined House of Representatives joined forces with Democrats to inflict a rare defeat on the White House on overtime pay regulations.
But the embattled White House gained one crumb of comfort yesterday, with a Labour Department report that the economy added 57,000 jobs in September, after eight consecutive months of losses.
Whatever happens in Iraq, Mr Bush's re-election team believes his grip on the presidency will be determined by the economy. Robust growth of 3.5 per cent is forecast for the final quarter of 2003, but to the White House's chagrin this has been the "jobless recovery".The headline unemployment rate was unchanged at 6.1 per cent last month, although the latest figures may show that as the recovery continues new jobs are finally being created.
Since Mr Bush took office, the US economy has lost more than 2.5 million jobs. Almost certainly, therefore, he will have the unwelcome distinction of being the first incumbent since Herbert Hoover to preside over a net loss of jobs during his term.
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