Only one in five American voters believe the United States is heading in the right direction, and the overwhelming majority of them have lost confidence in President Bush to right the country’s course.

Unfortunately for Democrats, the voters appear to be in the process of losing confidence in the opposition party to do much better than Bush.

According to the latest Associated Press/Ipsos poll, a mere 21 percent of those surveyed said the U.S. was on the right track.

Bush’s approval rating, which had trended modestly upward earlier in the spring, fell back to the all-time low for AP/Ipsos surveys: 32 percent. And the number of Americans who expressed satisfaction with president’s handling of the Iraq War is at just 28 percent.

That’s bad news for Republicans, but it is not particularly good news for Democrats.

Americans are actually more dissatisfied with the direction of the country than they are with the president.

Translation: The Democrats who are in charge of the Congress have not created a sense that they are turning things around.

In fact, with their failure to effectively challenge Bush’s management of the war in Iraq, their struggling with issues such as health care and immigration, and their inability so far to hold Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to account, Congressional Democrats are starting to look to a lot of Americans like part of the problem.

Congress still gets higher marks than Bush — 39 percent approval in the latest ABC/Washington Post poll, 35 percent approval in last month’s AP/Ipsos survey. But the numbers have declined as it has become clear that Democratic leaders in the House and Senate are unwilling to hold their ground in confrontations with Bush regarding the war and a host of other issues. And the messy, often confusing and increasingly bitter debate over immigration reform won’t help.

What’s happening is that the Democrats in Congress, who as recently as April maintained a dramatic approval rating advantage over Bush — 24 percent better in ABC/Washington Post polling — have essentially lost their advantage.

Why are Democrats falling in the public esteem? According to a smart analysis by ABC News Polling Unit director Gary Langer, “In terms of their overall approval rating, the damage is almost entirely among people who strongly oppose the war in Iraq. In this group 69 percent approved of the Democrats in April, but just 54 percent still approve now — a likely effect of the Democrats’ failure to push a withdrawal timetable through Congress.”

There is no evidence to suggest that the decline in Democratic fortunes will benefit Republicans. And Democrats still do a good deal better than the GOP when voters are forced to choose between the two parties. But the dual-disenchantment factor ought not be underestimated.

The intensity of enthusiasm for the Democrats is dwindling. And the decision of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, to give Bush a blank check to pursue his war of whim is a big factor in the shift.

Rather than accepting the mandate of the voters to stand in opposition to the Bush-Cheney administration, Pelosi and Reid have in the eyes of a growing number of Americans made Democrats the partners of the president and vice president.

Defenders of Democratic leaders argue that this is an unavoidable circumstance because of divisions within the ranks of the party’s House and Senate caucuses.

But that excuse does not appear to be cutting it with voters. Nor does the suggestion that pushing for a bring-the-troops-home time line will identify the Democrats as being weak on national defense; 53 percent of those interviewed for the Washington Post-ABC News poll — a new high — said they do not believe that the war has contributed to the long-term security of the United States.

It is said that the problem with contemporary policymaking is that too many politicians “read the polls.” But perhaps the problem is that Democrats aren’t reading the polls closely enough.

The voters are sending a message, and it is every bit as powerful as the one they tried to send when Democrats were given control of Congress last fall.

If Congressional Democrats don’t get this message, and adjust their approach on Iraq appropriately, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid could soon find themselves pulling even with Bush in the disapproval sweepstakes.


John Nichols’ new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders’ Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson hails it as a “nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe ‘heroic medicine’ that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to ‘reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'”