President Bush begins his Christmas holiday with a public approval rating near 60 percent. A new public opinion poll shows growing optimism about the economy and Iraq.
The Washington Post/ABC News poll shows 59 percent of Americans approve of the way Mr. Bush is handling his job. That is the president's highest rating since August when attacks on American troops in Iraq weakened public support for the U.S. occupation.
Sixty percent of those polled now approve of the way he is handling events in Iraq. That is up 12 points from last month following the president's surprise visit to Baghdad and the capture of Saddam Hussein.
The year-end boost in public approval comes as the president prepares his re-election campaign. The poll says he would defeat an un-named Democratic nominee if the vote were held now.
Among his nine declared opponents, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean leads the race for the Democratic nomination. Thirty-one percent of registered Democrats said they favor Mr. Dean. None of his challengers reached double digits.
Head-to-head, 55 percent of those polled said they would vote for President Bush, 37 percent for Mr. Dean.
The former governor has become the front-runner, in part, because of his opposition to the war in Iraq. Yet the poll suggests he is supported equally by those Democrats who favor the war and those who oppose it.
Democrats are also challenging the president on the economy, where his approval rating is 51 percent, the highest since April. By almost four-to-one, more Americans expect their family finances will improve in the coming year. Forty-two percent rate the economy as good or excellent. That is up from 33 percent in October.
The poll shows Democrats may find the president vulnerable on some of the domestic issues he is expected to campaign on. A majority disapprove of the way Mr. Bush is handling education and prescription drug benefits for senior citizens, as well as the federal deficit.
The president and Mrs. Bush are at the presidential retreat at Camp David outside Washington where they will spend Christmas. They leave for their Texas ranch December 26 and return to Washington the weekend after New Year's.