WASHINGTON - President Bush, in a bitter showdown with Congress over Iraq, has crept up a speck from an all-time low in his job approval rating. But his standing is the weakest of any second-term president at this point in 56 years.
The numbers in the latest AP-Ipsos poll gave the White House little reason for cheer as Bush opened a weeklong visit to Latin America to bolster U.S. influence in the face of rising anti-American sentiment.
Weighed down by the unpopular war in Iraq, which is about to begin its fifth year, and opposition to his decision to send more troops into combat, Bush had an approval rating of 35 percent in early March. Still, that was up from 32 percent in February when his rating was tied for an all time low in AP-Ipsos polling.
It now stands where it was in mid-January and in a range of where it was for most of 2006.
Seizing on voters' frustration with the war, House Democrats challenged Bush with legislation Thursday requiring the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq by October of next year. It would mark the first time the new Democratic-controlled Congress has established a date certain for the end of U.S. combat.
The White House was quick to say Bush would veto the measure. "It would unnecessarily handcuff our generals on the ground, and it's safe to say it's a non-starter for the president," presidential counselor Dan Bartlett said.
While he has clout over congressional decisions with his veto pen, Bush has not been able to pack much punch with the public.
His approval rating has not gotten above the 50 percent mark in AP-Ipsos polling since December of 2004. Gallup has been tracking a similar job approval measure for presidents since the 1930s.
By Gallup's measure, Bush's numbers are the lowest for any president in the third March of his second term since Harry Truman in March, 1951, when his approval rating was 28 percent.
The comparable numbers for other second-term presidents at this point were: Clinton 65 percent in March 1999, Reagan 45 percent in March 1987, Johnson 46 percent in March 1967 and Eisenhower 50 percent in March 1959.
Across the board, Bush's approval rating on a range of issues remained essentially changed from last month. Handling the economy was 41 percent, handling domestic issues was 37 percent, handling foreign policy issues and the war on terror was 38 percent and handing the situation in Iraq, 32 percent.
The only groups that noticeably increased their approval of Bush were women over 45 years of age, whose approval rating climbed 10 points to 33 percent compared with last month, and investors with family incomes between $25,000 to $50,000, whose approval rating climbed 11 points to 29 percent.
Bush also gained support among people living around the Great Lakes, where the approval rating jumped 12 points to 40 percent, and in Great Plains and Mountain States, where it was up 10 points to 36 percent.
Generally, the mood of the country was unchanged from last month, with 68 percent saying things were heading in the wrong direction and just 29 percent saying the nation was on the right track. Women over 45 were especially likely to say the country was headed down the wrong track, 78 percent, compared with just 19 percent saying the country was headed in the right direction.
Congress' job approval, at 32 percent, was weaker than Bush's. It has remained essentially unchanged for the last three months, since a 5-point honeymoon bounce in the first week of the term. Curiously, approval among Democrats for the Democratic-ruled Congress slipped slightly this month, down to 33 percent from 39 percent last month. In particular, support fell among Democratic men, from 44 percent last month to 34 percent this month.
There was not a single subgroup in the AP-Ipsos poll where a majority approved of the job Congress is doing.
The AP-Ipsos poll of 1,000 adults was conducted March 5-7. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
AP Manager of News Surveys Trevor Tompson and AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.
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