CBS Poll: No Second Honeymoon

President Bush, map of Africa, presidential seal, U.S. flag CBS/AP

As President Bush heads into his second term, a CBS News/New York Times poll finds a widespread feeling among Americans that the nation is headed in the wrong direction and little expectation that Mr. Bush's policies will change things over the next four years.

Fifty-eight percent of Americans say their outlook on a second Bush term is generally optimistic – a low number when compared to Mr. Bush's approval rating before his first term or Bill Clinton's before his second. At the same time, 56 percent say the country is on the wrong track, versus 39 percent who say it is on the right track.

Looking four years down the line, most Americans see very little changing, despite the ambitious agenda Mr. Bush is laying out for his second term.

Most expect they will be as safe from terror at the end of a second Bush term as they are today, but not safer. They think the economy and education system will be the same, but not better.

Despite Mr. Bush's focus on tax cuts, 41 percent of Americans say their taxes will be higher in four years, while just 9 percent say their taxes will be lower; 47 percent expect their taxes to be the same.

While Mr. Bush has a stated goal of cutting the national deficit in half, two-thirds of Americans expect the deficit to be higher after four years.

A slight plurality of Americans, 38 percent, say there will be fewer U.S. troops in Iraq by the end of a second Bush term. But 30 percent say there will be more, and 28 percent say the number will be the same.

As for the most ambitious and controversial item on Mr. Bush's agenda – overhauling Social Security - Americans expect to see big changes by 2008. But 50 percent say Mr. Bush's call for private retirement savings accounts is a bad idea, versus 45 percent who say it's a good idea.

Support for Social Security privatization drops even lower when people are informed it would mean cuts in the guaranteed benefits paid to retirees. Seventy-eight percent say combining benefit cuts and private investment accounts is a bad idea.

Moreover, six in ten Americans say it's unlikely they'd even participate in a system that allows them to invest their Social Security taxes in the stock market. Only 17 percent say they'd be very likely to do so, with another 22 percent somewhat likely.

Those already actively investing in the stock market and those making over $100,000 a year are the most receptive to private Social Security accounts.

While Mr. Bush has spoken recently of the need to heal the wounds of the divisive election, the public remains highly partisan and dubious that he can unite them. Just 44 percent of Americans believe he will bring the country together, while 47 percent think he will divide them.

Mr. Bush's 49 percent approval rating at the start of his second term trails every re-elected U.S. president in the past half-century. By comparison, Bill Clinton's approval rating was 60 percent, Ronald Reagan's 62 percent and Dwight Eisenhower's 73 percent at a similar point in their careers.

Even Richard Nixon — just a year and a half before he was forced to resign the presidency — fared better than Mr. Bush with an approval rating of 51 percent when he took his second oath of office in January 1973.

Mr. Bush's approval rating, however, has risen significantly since its low mark of 41 percent last May following a flood of violence in Iraq. His highest rating, 90 percent, came in October 2001, just after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Mr. Bush's handling of the war on terrorism remains his strongest suit in the eyes of the public, earning 56 percent approval. He also gets high marks for his response to the recent Asian tsunami.

On a personal level, 44 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of Mr. Bush, while 40 percent view him unfavorably. These views have remained stable since last January.

  • Joel Roberts

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