WASHINGTON -- The American public continues to rally around President Bush in public opinion polls even as they grow more anxious about the economy, more uncertain about administration policies and more worried about the country's direction.
The president's resilient connection with the public, forged during the shock of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and his much-praised efforts to rally the frightened country, has been very slow to wear away.
"Whatever has happened, the public is still using terrorism and national security as the basis of judging the president's performance," said Robert Shapiro, a Columbia University political scientist who specializes in public opinion.
The public correlates Bush's success with success in the war against terrorism and not other policies in much the same way it connected President Clinton's success with the strength of the economy and not his moral fiber, Shapiro said.
Polls done this week by ABC-Washington Post and CBS-New York Times confirmed the growing fears about the economy and the general direction of the country. Bush's job approval rating was around 70 percent in both polls, close to where it's been over the past two months.
While it has dropped from the 90 percent level after the terrorist attacks, it remains extraordinarily high.
The public tends to give Bush a break when asked whether he cares about the needs and problems of ordinary people. Two-thirds said in the CBS-Times poll that Bush cares about their needs, while fewer than half said that about members of his administration. Bush has remained popular even though a majority thinks big business has too much influence on him.
"George W. Bush has the armor of commander in chief which sustains high numbers despite an economic crisis," said conservative political analyst Marshall Wittmann. He said the public would stay with Bush "as long as physical security is more important than fiscal security."
But Wittmann warned: "We're on the precipice of a potential change of the balance between national security and financial security."
While Bush's job approval and personal popularity have inched down somewhat, they continue to soar above public concerns about other issues. The political landscape between the two parties remains relatively even, although both parties are scrambling for position amid high public concerns about corporate accounting scandals.
Some think Bush's approval ratings have remained high because he led the country through a shock a year ago that was so powerful.
"The shock value of 9-11 was so great relative to other military engagements and Bush's response resonated so well with the public ... that it has brought him an extra measure of support," said Thomas Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution.
A Pew Research Center analysis of Bush's job approval suggests his support has fallen off slightly among independents and more dramatically among Democrats.
The Pew analysis suggested that those who approve of his handling of terrorism but not his handling of the economy make up a fifth or less of the overall population. That group's approval of the president has dropped from seven-in-10 in September to four-in-10 now. If that group, which splits on the two dominant issues, grows in the coming months the presidents' ratings could suffer.
Political analysts agree the coming weeks and months will be crucial to the political health of the president and those around him. The shift in recent polls that indicated slightly more people now think the country is headed down the wrong track is a warning sign.
Public opinion analyst Karlyn Bowman said she's watching that number carefully because it's often a leading indicator for other changes.
"It often leads to changes in the president's approval rating," said Bowman, who is with the American Enterprise Institute. "It certainly did for his father."
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