President Bush's approval rating has slipped below 60% for the first time since Sept. 11, 2001, two new surveys have found.
Experts said the declining numbers do not necessarily suggest that Bush's reelection prospects are in jeopardy, but they do highlight some targets of opportunity for Democrats just as the field for the party's 2004 nomination is taking shape.
Bush's performance won the approval of 58% of 1,002 adults surveyed by the Gallup organization from Jan. 10-12, while 37% disapproved. The 58% was down 5 percentage points from a Gallup survey one week earlier. Both had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
An Ipsos-Reid-Cook poll conducted Jan. 7-9 found almost identical results: 58% approving and 38% disapproving. The survey of 784 registered voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.
Gallup pinpointed foreign affairs -- specifically, the controversy over North Korea's nuclear ambitions -- as a key to Bush's decline. It found that those approving of Bush's handling of foreign policy fell from 60% to 53% between the two polls, closely tracking his overall dip.
By contrast, Gallup said, public sentiment about Bush's handling of the economy did not change significantly; in both polls, the public was evenly divided about his performance.
That flat economic rating may not be good news for Bush, according to Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll. He noted that the latest survey was taken shortly after Bush unveiled a plan for new tax cuts aimed at stimulating the lagging economy.
"Some would have expected an upturn in the president's economic numbers because of that," Newport said. "I think that's a reasonable hypothesis. The fact that it didn't happen may be significant in and of itself."
Gallup found that the public continues to view Bush as honest, decisive and effective. But it found the public evenly divided on reelecting Bush, with one-third in favor, one-third against and one-third up for grabs. Most said the economy would be decisive in determining their vote -- and a majority said Bush favors the rich rather than the middle class.
The White House shrugged off the new polls. "There are a number of news organizations ... who have shown the president to be at such a consistent high popularity level that you've stopped even reporting those facts to your readers or viewers," said spokesman Ari Fleischer.
That sanguine view may have merit, according to some experts. Charles Cook, editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report newsletter, said a study done for his publication of the last four presidencies before Bush found no correlation between approval ratings during the first 33 months of a president's term and reelection prospects. It's the trend in the 13 or 14 months before the election that matters, he said.