Bush job approval lowest since 9/11 Though still high at 58%, rating reflects anxieties By Richard Benedetto and Susan Page USA TODAY WASHINGTON -- President Bush's job approval rating as he nears the middle of his term has dropped below 60% for the first time since the Sept. 11 attacks, a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll has found. The number reflects a rising uncertainty about a sluggish economy and the prospects of conflict with Iraq and North Korea. The dip in Bush's rating to 58% from 63% last week is within the survey's margin of error of +/-3 percentage points, but it marks a steady decline in his approval numbers, which peaked at 90% days after the terrorist attacks. The slip comes as the president is poised for military action against Iraq and is pushing an ambitious program of tax cuts and judicial nominations in Congress. Leading Democrats are deciding whether to seek the nomination against him in 2004. A sense that Bush's record-setting popularity is beginning to erode could make it more difficult for him to win victories on Capitol Hill. It also could embolden Democratic critics who were disheartened by the strong GOP showing, including the recapturing of the Senate, in the November elections. Even so, 58% is still a healthy rating, higher than presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton held at the beginning of their third years in office. The first President Bush was at 83% in January 1991, his standing boosted as the Persian Gulf War began. For the current president, the question is whether the findings turn out to be ''a snapshot in time'' or a trend that continues, Bush pollster Matthew Dowd says. Dowd, a strategist for the Republican National Committee, says he and others have long acknowledged that the president's stratospheric ratings wouldn't continue forever. Just before the attacks on New York and Washington, Bush's job approval was at 51%, the lowest of his tenure. Then it rose to 90% Sept. 21, a record for presidents in the Gallup Poll. It stayed above 80% until March 4 and above 70% until July 22. Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg interprets the recent drop as a ''slap on the hand from the American people'' after hearing details of an administration economic plan that Democrats say favors the rich. ''If you offer that many billions of dollars in tax cuts and your numbers go down, it is hard not to read that as a no-confidence vote on the plan,'' Greenberg says. Bush's rating on handling the economy slipped to 48%, the lowest of his presidency. His approval rating on foreign affairs was 53%, the lowest since Sept. 11. And though 59% said he was paying the right amount of attention to terrorism, 55% said he wasn't paying enough attention to the economy. The president continues to be highly regarded. By solid majorities of 65% or more, those surveyed said he has a vision for the country's future, has brought dignity back to the White House and is a strong leader willing to make hard decisions. The poll of 1,002 adults was conducted Friday through Sunday. Bush's standing in the future will be shaped by what happens with the events now at center stage, says Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution. ''If the economy improves, a diplomatic solution is found to the North Korea problem and a war in Iraq is successful, Bush will benefit,'' he says. ''If any one of them is a failure, it can hurt.''