CBSNews.com Chief Political Writer
President Bush's overall approval rating has fallen to the lowest level of his presidency, 44 percent, in the latest CBS News poll, reflecting the weight of instability in Iraq on public opinion, despite signs of improvement in the economy.
Two weeks ago, 46 percent of Americans approved of the job President Bush was doing. On April 9, his approval rating was 51 percent.
American's opinion of Mr. Bush's handling of the economy is also at an all-time low, 34 percent, while 60 percent disapprove, also a high of the Bush presidency. Increasing employment is seemingly not affecting Americans' view of Mr. Bush's economic policy.
Just as startling, the poll finds that for the first time a clear majority of Americans disapprove of Mr. Bush's handling of the war in Iraq, believe the United States is not in control of the country and think U.S. troops should turn over power to Iraq as soon as possible, even if the country is unstable.
The highest figure ever recorded, 64 percent, say the result of the war in Iraq has not been worth the cost in lives or money. Only 29 percent, the lowest figure yet, believe the war has been worth it. And just 31 percent of Americans now say the United States is winning the war.
"The public is just very unhappy with what has happened in the war," said Robert Shapiro, a professor of American politics and public opinion at Columbia University. "We are talking about perceptions of the war that are akin to the public's perception on Vietnam, or lower."
Though the majority of Americans disapprove of President Bush's handling of the war, the public remains split on whether the United States should have taken military action against Iraq in the first place: 49 percent think it was the right decision, 45 percent think it was not.
Fifty-eight percent of Americans now disapprove of the president's handling of the war in Iraq, while 39 percent approve. In December 2003, the numbers were reversed: 57 percent approved of Mr. Bush's handling of the war, while 36 percent disapproved.
"It means that the public is very dissatisfied with the way things are going. They are still divided about the decision but are not divided about Bush's stewardship of the war," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
"We have in our poll for the first time a majority saying things are not going well and that reflects numbers greater than it was even during the Shia rebellion two weeks ago," he continued, referring to a Pew poll that also showed equally low approval ratings for the president. "These pictures have made people even glummer over the way the war is being waged."
While 60 percent of Americans believe the abuse of Iraqi prisoners is "very serious," the public is split over Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's job performance: 43 percent approve and 45 percent disapprove.
Reflecting skepticism of the Defense Department, a full 61 percent of those polled believe the military is primarily upset because the public found out about the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison, rather than because the abuse actually happened.
By 46 percent to 37 percent, more Americans believe the soldiers involved in the abuse were following orders than that they were acting on their own volition.
The CBS News poll was conducted on Tuesday with a random phone sampling of 448 adults. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.
The poll comes during the most dangerous period in Iraq since major operations ended more than a year ago. Nearly as many U.S. soldiers died last month as in the first two months of heavy combat last year. And the death toll shows no sign of waning, as U.S. troops continue to battle fighters loyal to a radical cleric in Karbala.
Most distressing, graphic photos of U.S. soldiers sexually humiliating and abusing Iraqi prisoners have set off a firestorm of outrage worldwide. Seventy-seven percent of Americans believe the abuse was not justified, while 13 percent say the behavior of U.S. soldiers can be justified.
A slim majority of Americans, 51 percent, believe the media was correct to release the photos, first broadcast two weeks ago on CBS News' 60 Minutes II. Forty percent believe the pictures should not have been shown, and 57 percent says the media should not release more pictures.
With the controversy over prison abuse showing no sign of letting up and stability in Iraq still a major hurdle, the Bush campaign faces a tough challenge if Americans do not begin to see an improvement following the June 30 handover of sovereignty to the Iraqis.
"The numbers are bad news. It's a sign of ineffective performance of the military and hence the administration in Iraq. It will depend on how these things play out at the time of the election," Shapiro said.
For a president running for reelection, the poll numbers illustrate that even if the economy continues to improve, Americans may judge President Bush on the war that he admits he staked his presidency on.
"If American causalities continue without any change in stability occurring in Iraq, in other words if things go as they continue to go with U.S. causalities heavy and U.S. current involvement and lack of success in getting us out, that's going hurt the administration," Shapiro added.
The question consuming the Bush-Cheney campaign is whether the situation in Iraq could not just hurt the administration, but end it.