In his State of the Union message tonight, President Bush will address a nation that is gloomier than it has been in 13 years, more disapproving of his presidency than ever and increasingly willing to try a Democrat in the White House, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll.
The survey suggests that Mr. Bush is facing a discontented and volatile electorate that on a variety of issues is willing to give the opposition party the benefit of the doubt.
Seventy-three percent of those polled see the country as being in worse shape today than it was five years ago, a crucial measure of the national mood that has not been this grim since the days of "malaise" under President Jimmy Carter when the figure was 63 percent.
The public tends to think a Democratic president would do a better job on improving schools, helping the middle class, assuring national health care and even ending the recession, the poll found. Sixty percent in the telephone survey of 1,281 adults nationwide say it is time to give a Democrat a chance as president.
Support for Mr. Bush continues to erode, with just 43 percent saying they approve of his performance as president, an astonishing drop of 45 points since his popularity rating reached percent, a historic peak, after the Persian Gulf war.
Perhaps most tellingly, the public has even lost confidence in Mr. Bush's handling of foreign policy, long his strong suit in the polls. In the latest survey, conducted Wednesday through Saturday, 46 percent approved of his conduct of foreign policy, while 46 percent disapproved.
The poll had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.
The economy is clearly driving political attitudes now, and profoundly changing the zeitgeist of the 1980s. Seventy-eight percent of those polled say the economy is in bad shape, and only 9 percent say they think it is improving.
Even with a burdensome federal deficit, the survey suggests that the public is in the mood for a more active federal government engaged in some basic pump-priming.
Sixty-five percent said they favored more federal spending to create jobs; 74 percent favored more spending to improve education; and74 percent said they would spend more to provide affordable health care to all Americans.
The idea of national health insurance has clearly caught fire: 65 percent said they would favor a system financed through taxes. Fifty-three percent said they would be willing to pay $1,000 a year more in federal taxes to cover it, if that freed them from other medical costs.
The public voiced a clear preference on the best way to jump start the economy: 59 percent said the federal government should spend more and try to create jobs, while 28 percent said that tax cuts were the way to go.
The public seemed to have only modest expectations about what atax cut for the middle class could do for the economy. Asked what kind of effect a tax cut of $400 or $500 would have, 11 percent said it would a major effect in ending the recession, 34 percent said small and 49 percent said it would make no difference.
Still, the middle class -- and 75 percent of those polled said they considered themselves part of it -- feels a clear sense of grievance. When asked who had suffered most from the policies of the federal government in the past 10 years, 46 percent said the poor and 43 percent said the middle class. When asked who had most benefited, 82 percent said the rich.
Moreover, the Democrats' efforts to cast themselves as the champions of the middle class are paying off. Fifty-nine percent of the respondents said a Democratic president would be more likely to care about the needs of the middle class, while 25 percent said Mr. Bush would.
That was just part of the edge that the public gives to an idealized Democrat when asked who could do a better job on several issues. Forty-six percent said a Democratic president would be more likely to improve education, as against 31 percent who cited Mr. Bush. Sixty-one percent said a Democratic president would be more likely to make health care available to all, as against 19 percent who cited Mr. Bush.
On abortion, 42 percent of the respondents said they thought a )) Democratic president would do a better job of dealing with the abortion issue, while 32 percent cited Mr. Bush.
Perhaps most worrisome to Mr. Bush, 45 percent said a dTC Democratic president would be most likely to end the recession, as against 32 percent who cited the incumbent.