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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The White House maintains that it does not pay attention to polls, even as they've been slipping for some time. Today, a new survey by The Pew Research Center finds an even more significant decline in the public's view of the president and the job he's doing. Andy Kohut, director of the center, joins me now to explain.

Andy, what's changed--Or shall we say worsened?--about the president's standing?

Mr. ANDREW KOHUT (Director, The Pew Research Center): Just about everything. President Bush's numbers are going from bad to worse. Back in September, we talked about his drop in approval reflecting criticisms of the way he handled Hurricane Katrina relief, and now we see the numbers going ever lower. Just 38 percent say they approve of the way he's handling his job; 56 percent disapprove; that's down from 50 percent approval at the beginning of the year. These numbers have gone steadily down. And he's at an all-time low with respect to job approval, but also an all-time low in his presidency with respect to satisfaction with the way things are going in the country. Just 29 percent of the public told us that they think that they're satisfied with national conditions. And the bottom line is for the first time since President Bush took office, most people, a plurality, say they think that President Bush will be judged as an unsuccessful president.

NORRIS: How much of this is tied to the war in Iraq?

Mr. KOHUT: A good deal of it. This poll also shows remarkable declines in support for keeping troops there--a majority saying, `We have to set a timetable'--and a lack of enthusiasm--or a lack of optimism, rather--about this coming vote on the constitution. So Iraq is a real problem.

But it's not only Iraq. It's domestic issues, from the budget deficit to the economy to taxes to health care. A majority said he's made things worse. Only in the case of national security did a majority say that President Bush's policies have made things better.

NORRIS: Now Hurricane Katrina only affected one region of the country. You mentioned that as a possible factor. Questions were raised about competence and cronyism in the administration's handling of this. Did that affect these numbers, and did it bring people who perhaps in previous polls had given the president high marks and have now changed their mind based on what they saw?

Mr. KOHUT: Well, I think one of the things about President Bush is that his strongest element of his image, up until this point, pre-Katrina, is that he was seen as a very good leader, a man who took charge. Katrina really changed that perception of him, and with it--it almost acted as a catalyst to get going a lot of other criticisms that we had seen below the surface about President Bush with respect to domestic issues. Fifty-seven percent, for example, say that his policies and decisions have made the gap between rich people and poor people worse than they were prior to his taking office.

NORRIS: Now, Andy, how do your findings compare with other polls, other surveys?

Mr. KOHUT: Well, an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll was released yesterday, and the satisfaction with the state of the nation was virtually identical. But they asked a really interesting question, looking forward. They asked if their respondents would like to see the Democrats or the Republicans control the Congress, and by a 48-to-39 percent margin, the NBC-Wall Street Journal respondents said they were would prefer a Democratic-controlled Congress looking forward. And that's really--has to be the concern for the GOP. Every time a president is unpopular or is judged as performing poorly, his party takes it on the chin in the midterm elections. There have been no exceptions to this pattern in modern history.

NORRIS: Now we've noted that the White House says that it does not pay any attention to these polls, but if they were to look at these numbers, is there any silver lining, any good news that they might find here?

Mr. KOHUT: The best news is that he still has the support of 80 percent of his party, and his base has been very important in turning out in elections, and congressional elections tend to have low turnout. But when you have such discontent with national conditions, that is often a motivator. You know, the rule in American politics is bad news brings the voters out, and that has to be a GOP concern. We are a long way from the election; things could improve. We can't make predictions more than one year forward. But the Republicans have their work cut out for them.

NORRIS: Andrew Kohut is the director of The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

Andy, thanks for talking to us.

Mr. KOHUT: You're welcome.

NORRIS: And you can check out the new poll numbers for yourself at npr.org.

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