WASHINGTON, Aug. 22 — Americans increasingly see the war in Iraq as distinct from the fight against terrorism, and nearly half believe President Bush has focused too much on Iraq to the exclusion of other threats, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.
The finding that 51 percent of those surveyed see no link between the war in Iraq and the broader antiterror effort was a jump of 10 percentage points since June. It came despite the regular insistence of Mr. Bush and Congressional Republicans that the two are intertwined and should be seen as complementary elements of an overall strategy to prevent domestic terror attacks.
Should the trend hold, the increased skepticism could present a political obstacle for Mr. Bush and his allies on Capitol Hill, who are making their record on terrorism a central element of the midterm election campaign. The Republicans hope the public’s desire for forceful action against terrorists will offset unease with the Iraq war and blunt the political appeal of Democratic calls to establish a timeline to withdraw American troops.
Public sentiment about the war remains negative, threatening to erode a Republican advantage on national security. Fifty-three percent of those polled said that going to war in the first place was a mistake, up from 48 percent in July; 62 percent said events were going “somewhat or very badly” in the attempt to bring order and stability to Iraq.
Mr. Bush recorded a gain of 4 percentage points in how the public views his handling of terrorism, rising to 55 percent approval from 51 percent a week earlier. The figure was his highest on the issue since last summer and followed the arrests in Britain in a suspected plot to blow up airliners.
Mr. Bush’s overall standing was nevertheless unchanged from the previous week, resting at 36 percent approval to 57 percent disapproval — far below the level his fellow Republicans in Congress would like to see as they face the voters in November. Compounding the political problems of majority Republicans, the survey reflected significant dissatisfaction with the way Congress was doing its job. Voters in the poll indicated a strong preference for Democratic candidates this fall.
The Times/CBS News poll differed somewhat with other recent surveys that showed higher approval ratings for the president. In surveys for USA Today and CNN, which were conducted Friday through Sunday, 42 percent approved of how Mr. Bush was handling his job and gave Democratic Congressional candidates less of an edge. The Times/CBS News poll was conducted Thursday through Monday by telephone with 1,206 adults nationwide and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
According to the poll, terrorism and the war in Iraq hold about equal importance in the minds of Americans. Forty-six percent said the Bush administration had concentrated too heavily on Iraq and not enough on terrorists elsewhere, while 42 percent considered the balance just about right.
The opinion of 51 percent that the war in Iraq was separate from the war on terror was a considerable shift from polls taken in 2002 and the first half of 2003, when a majority regarded the fighting in Iraq as a major antiterror front. As recently as June, opinion was split: 41 percent said the war in Iraq was a major part of the fight against terror and 41 percent said it was not a part at all. Now only 32 percent considered it a major part of the terror fight, while 12 percent rated it a minor part.
“I’m just not sure there’s a connection between terrorism and the war in Iraq,” said Ann Davis, a Republican homemaker in Lima, Ohio, interviewed in a follow-up to the initial survey. She said she was fully supportive of American troops in Iraq but, “I feel we should not be over there, they should be able to figure it out on their own.”
However, another Republican, Marty Woll, 56, a retired accountant from Los Angeles, said he saw a clear link between the war and attempts to combat terrorism. “Iraq was obviously not the precipitating location for the 9/11 attacks, but if you look at the Middle East as a whole, you see it has been spawning the most violent and the most desperate of the attacks,’’ Mr. Woll said. “Saddam Hussein killed almost a million of his own people. That magnitude indicated that someone had to do something about it.”
Mr. Bush’s inability to improve his overall standing despite gains on the terror issue could be traced to people like Lucia Figueroa, 23, an independent from Fort Drum, N.Y., who backs the president on terrorism but faults him elsewhere. “Even though I approve of the way Bush is handling terrorism, he isn’t putting enough focus on other issues, like health care and Katrina, and those things need more attention,” she said
As recently as Monday, Mr. Bush, at a news conference, defended the invasion of Iraq as essential to preventing more domestic terror attacks and said he expected troops to stay there through the remainder of his presidency.
“If you believe that the job of the federal government is to secure this country, it’s really important for you to understand that success in Iraq is part of securing the country,” said Mr. Bush.
But Democrats in recent weeks have made a concerted effort to portray the war in Iraq as a distraction from essential antiterror initiatives, and the poll indicates that message may be effective. Democrats contend that the war in Iraq has sapped resources and attention from tracking terrorists and bolstering domestic security. “We took our eye off the real war, the war on terror,” said Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, in a conference call with reporters today.
The public’s judgment on the job that Congress is doing remains largely negative, with 60 percent registering disapproval. Forty-seven percent of the registered voters surveyed in the poll said they expected to vote for a Democrat for the House this November; 32 percent said they would vote for a Republican. The national poll cannot measure the races in individual Congressional districts, but the findings are indicative of the two parties’ relative strength.
After terrorism and the war in Iraq, those surveyed considered the economy the third most crucial issue for political leaders to concentrate on followed by health care costs and gas prices. The White House has sought to get more credit for Mr. Bush for what the administration considers a strong economy and there has been an improvement in how the public views him on this issue. But the overall impression remains negative.
Thirty-five percent approve of how Mr. Bush is dealing with the economy, up 5 percentage points from a CBS News poll conducted last week, while 58 percent disapprove. Over all, 52 percent of those surveyed consider the national economy to be in good condition and 47 percent said it was in bad condition.
In the wake of the fighting in Lebanon, the public is increasingly pessimistic about the possibility of peace between Israel and its neighbors. Only 26 percent could foresee Israel and the Arab countries settling their differences while 70 percent could not — a figure up from 64 percent last month. And most Americans — 56 percent — said they do not believe that the country has a responsibility to try to resolve the conflicts between Israel and other Middle Eastern countries, while 39 percent said it was a proper role.