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A Presidency On Life Support
A Presidency On Life Support
by John Kenneth White
The George W. Bush presidency is on life support. At first, these words seem harsh and overstated. For starters, Bush has more than a thousand days left in office. He can nominate Supreme Court justices and get them confirmed, as the 78 to 22 Senate vote for John Roberts so easily demonstrates. He also wields other important constitutional powers, including the veto which he can use to impose his will on a recalcitrant Congress. Finally, he retains considerable diplomatic and war powers at his disposal. But for the remainder of his presidency, George W. Bush will govern without the consent of the governed.
That last fact has been underscored by a flurry of recent public polls. In nearly all of them, Bush’s job approval is hovering at 40%. Behind the job approval numbers are many other signs of a presidency in trouble. A Democracy Corps survey finds 58% want to go in a significantly different direction away from Bush; 56% believe he is "in over his head;" and 44% say they are "finished" with him.
Two years ago, pollster John Zogby and I penned an article dubbing Bush "The Fifty-Something President." For the foreseeable future, we wrote that Bush’s job approval rating would flutter around 50% -- a forecast that held true on Election Day 2004, when Bush captured 51% of the ballots. After defeating John Kerry, there was every indication that the President could maintain the overwhelming Republican support that kept him at 50% in the polls. In fact, the near-unanimous backing from the GOP rank-and-file and members of Congress gave Bush a unique second term opportunity. After claiming victory, Bush told reporters he had acquired "political capital, and now I intend to spend it . . . [on] Social Security and tax reform, moving this economy forward, education, fighting and winning the war on terror." This accumulation of capital was evident in a Gallup poll taken two weeks after his second inauguration: 57% approved of Bush’s performance, 40% disapproved. As of mid-September, those figures were reversed: 40% approved of Bush’s job performance, while 58% disapproved, according to Gallup. Just nine months into his second term, Bush’s political capital is all but spent. If he were a bank, he’d have to declare bankruptcy.
A look behind the polls explains why. Not only are Bush’s overall approval ratings low and doubts about his leadership growing, but on a variety of issues he has been judged seriously deficient. A Zogby International survey gives Bush poor marks on a host of domestic and foreign concerns (see Table 1, below). Overall, the ratio of poor-to-excellent scores ranges from a low of 1:1 (managing the war on terror and Hurricane Rita) to a high of 8:1 (handling gasoline prices). If this were a parliamentary system, there would be a vote of no confidence and a new election held.
Even on Bush’s two signature character issues -- strong leadership and a reputation for honesty -- opinion has turned negative. A mid-September Gallup poll finds just 49% think Bush is a strong and decisive leader; in 2001, 61% thought so. Moreover, only 47% say Bush is honest and trustworthy; four years ago, 64% did. The Bush family’s reputation for high-minded public service traces its roots to Prescott Bush’s tenure as a U.S. senator from Connecticut and George H. W. Bush’s lengthy resume. This reputation for virtue was a powerful asset that George W. Bush brought into the 2000 campaign following the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Bill Clinton’s impeachment. On the campaign trail, Bush earned standing ovations with these words: "When I put my hand on the Bible, I will swear to not only uphold the laws of our land, I will swear to uphold the honor and dignity of the office to which I have been elected, so help me God."
One President, Two Images
In the television age, presidencies are remembered by the images associated with them. Often, the pictures resemble a split television screen: on one side a flattering photograph; the other, a darker visage. Thus, there is John Kennedy’s vigor in becoming the youngest person ever elected president and the horror of his assassination. Or, Lyndon Johnson’s mammoth 1964 victory and his haggard appearance upon leaving office. Or, the "New Nixon" admonishing Americans to "lower our voices" and "stop shouting at one another" and a woeful, teary-eyed Nixon announcing his resignation. Or, a happy Gerald Ford toasting his English muffins and a grim president announcing the Nixon pardon. Or, the erstwhile peanut farmer Jimmy Carter arguing for a government "as good, honest, and decent" as its people and an aged Carter declaring a "crisis of confidence." Or, a triumphant George H. W. Bush following the Persian Gulf War, and a befuddled president standing in front of a storefront scanner seemingly out-of-touch with what he was seeing.
Like these presidents, George W. Bush has two distinct images that are embedded in the mystic chords of public memory. The first is his 2001 stance atop the ruins of the World Trade Center holding a bullhorn and telling a crowd of firefighters: "I hear you; the rest of the world hears you; and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon." A second image has now come into focus: Bush’s viewing of the Hurricane Katrina damage from the luxury of his Air Force One cabin high atop the immense suffering in the city of New Orleans below.
It is unlikely that Bush can replace this negative second image with a more favorable one. His repeated visits to the devastated Gulf region are attempts to do so. While voters give him higher marks for handling Hurricane Rita, he has yet to find a compelling image that might restore his battered prestige. In many ways, Bush’s inability to stage a recovery stems from his 2004 victory. Bush won because 93% of Republicans backed him, whereas only 11% of Democrats bolted their party’s ticket, according to exit polling by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International. The lack of crossover party voting stands in sharp contrast to Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. In 1980 and 1984, Reagan got the votes of one in four Democrats; in 1988, Bush Sr. received one in five Democratic votes. Reagan and Bush Sr.’s ability to win crossover votes put the Democrats on the defensive. For years, the party was preoccupied with finding ways to win back the so-called "Reagan Democrats."
After the 2004 election, there were virtually no "George W. Bush Democrats." Now with a presidency besieged by the wreckage of two hurricanes and an unpopular war, Bush has almost no hope of winning any substantial Democratic backing. The September 29-October 2 Zogby poll finds just 12% of Democrats giving Bush an excellent or good job performance rating; 88% think he is doing a fair or poor job --i.e., no change from the 2004 Democratic vote. For the remainder of his presidency, Bush has given the Democrats their own take on the post-September 11th bumper sticker slogan: "United We Stand."
Given his inability to cross party lines, George W. Bush would lose hypothetical contests to Reagan and Bush Sr. John Zogby reports in a September poll that Bush would win just 20% of the votes to Reagan’s 59%; Bush Sr. would capture 41% to his son’s 34%. Interestingly, Reagan would win 53% backing from Democrats, while the elder Bush scores 52%. Both former presidents have become something the younger Bush has long aspired to but is unlikely to achieve: "A uniter [sic] not a divider."
The Lost Center
By itself, George W. Bush’s inability to capture significant Democratic backing is not crippling to his presidency. But his failure to win support from independents and moderates imperils his Administration’s future. Until 2004, it was believed that these two groups were crucial to winning elections and establishing a governing coalition. Bush has proved this maxim requires rethinking. According to the 2004 exit poll, John Kerry won 49% backing from independents to Bush’s 48%. Among moderates, the Kerry advantage was even more decisive: 54% to 45%. Knowing that the president could not count on independents and moderates, Bush campaign strategist Karl Rove decided he had to find more Republicans and get them to the polls. The so-called "72-Hour Task Force" Rove designed masterfully accomplished this objective, and sent Democrats off trying to replicate it.
But the limits of Bush’s strategy are apparent. Since winning reelection, Bush has continued to shed independent and moderate support. On nearly every major issue presidential disapproval among independents and moderates is higher than the national average (see Table 2, below). By reducing his base of support to hard-core Republicans, Bush has insured that the politics of polarization will continue. As historian Arthur M. Schlesinger once observed (in The Cycles of American History), ideology is the curse of public affairs "because it converts politics into a branch of theology and sacrifices human beings on the altar of dogma." Independents and moderates believe they are being sacrificed by an ideological president and a Congress that fails to provide the concrete results they crave.
There is an old rule that says, "How you win determines how you govern." For five years, Bush’s governing base has relied exclusively on GOP support. Now, with mounting deficits, an unpopular war, and Republican Senate candidates struggling in the polls (notably Rick Santorum, Mike DeWine, Jim Talent, and Katherine Harris), that once-firm base of Republican support no longer seems quite so secure. This insecurity is likely to intensify as Democrats widen their lead in the 2006 prospective generic ballot question. In the September 19-21 Democracy Corps poll, for instance, Democrats have a 9-point advantage. Moreover, Republicans seem on the verge of a vigorous intra-party squabble between economic conservatives (who are appalled by the gargantuan deficits Bush has accumulated) and the social conservatives (who remain loyal to Bush as long as he is steadfastly faithful to them). Today, social conservatives find their faith in Bush tested by the Harriet Miers nomination to the Supreme Court, while economic conservatives are disgruntled by the size of the deficit and promised federal spending following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. A recent American Enterprise Institute report showed Bush to be a profligate spender in the mold of Lyndon Johnson. In his first term, Bush’s increase in discretionary spending totaled 30.2%, as compared to LBJ’s 33.4%.
Then, there is Iraq. As long as George W. Bush could link the deposition of Saddam Hussein to the war on terror, support for the war held firm. Thus, in a March 2003 Pew Research Center poll, 74% believed the U.S. made the right decision to invade Iraq. But the linkage between deposing Hussein and the war on terror has long since frayed. Today, 59% say the U.S. made a mistake sending troops into Iraq (Gallup, September 16-18), and 53% think it was not worth going to war in the first place (Gallup, September 8-11). The Bush Administration’s "slam dunk" assertion that Hussein had acquired weapons of mass destruction has been upended.
Now the Iraq War has become so unpopular that it ranks just above gay marriage on Democracy Corp’s so-called "feeling thermometer" -- standing at a mean 35.8 degrees, to 32.7 degrees for gay marriage. Increasing numbers say that Iraq costs too much in money and manpower when both are needed at home: 54% believe the U.S. government should cut spending for the Iraq War after Hurricane Katrina, and 63% favor withdrawing some or all U.S. forces there (Gallup, September 16-18). Moreover, 75% say Bush has no clear plan for getting U.S. troops out (CBS News/New York Times Poll, September 9-13). In many respects, public opinion toward Iraq resembles attitudes about the Vietnam War circa 1968, with one difference: it took Americans more than a decade to conclude that Vietnam was unwinnable and their troops should leave; it has taken just two years for them to reach the same conclusion about Iraq.
The Failed Presidents
George W. Bush’s troubles are profound. But any beleaguered president often looks to his predecessors for guidance. At first glance, Bush can take heart from their experiences. Since Franklin D. Roosevelt, other presidents have fared poorly in public opinion polls and recovered their standing. Harry S. Truman’s first term is a case in point. In 1946, Truman’s approval rating dipped to just 27% in a Gallup poll, as Americans were fed up with labor strikes, meat shortages, and Truman’s inability to cope. Nearly forty years later, Ronald Reagan was rocked by the Iran-Contra affair, and his approval rating, in Gallup polls, fell from 62% to 47%. Bill Clinton also took a similar tumble: he began his presidency with 58% support, according to Gallup, but by 1994 his approval rating fell to 41%. Clinton’s big government health care plan, and his "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy allowing gays to serve in the military gave voters reason to think that instead of electing a New Democrat, they might just have chosen George McGovern instead.
Yet, Truman, Reagan, and Clinton recovered because they could change the subject. Harry Truman’s failure to keep the Democrats in control of Congress in 1946, gave him a perfect opportunity to rail against the "Do-Nothing Congress" two years later. Suddenly, the focus was back to the domestic New Deal-Fair Deal issues that worked for the Democrats. And to everyone’s surprise, Truman kept his job.
Ronald Reagan learned from the Truman experience. While the Contras may have been important to Reagan in fighting communism, effecting a regime change in Nicaragua was never central to his presidency. What mattered to Reagan’s followers was reducing taxes and winning the Cold War. After the Iran-Contra scandal became public, Reagan dropped most references to the Sandinista regime and returned to familiar themes. Also sustaining Reagan was the public’s affection: at the height of the Iran-Contra affair, 75% said they liked Reagan personally, according to Gallup, while 18% did not.
Perhaps no president knew how to change the subject better than Bill Clinton. After the drubbing he took in the 1994 midterm elections, Clinton ditched Hillary’s health care proposals and opted to enact bite-sized portions -- e.g., insuring the children of the unemployed. Gays in the military were also forgotten, as Clinton turned his laser-like attention to family and values issues, including the desirability of having children wear school uniforms. In 1996, Clinton famously noted that "the era of big government is over," and he signed a welfare reform bill over the objections of many Democrats. By echoing Reagan’s themes and keeping his focus on the middle class, Clinton won an easy victory over Bob Dole.
On the other hand, six presidents since FDR have failed to recoup their public standing: Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H. W. Bush.
In 1952, Harry Truman saw his job approval rating fall to a mere 22% in the Gallup Poll. By then, Truman had become mired in the Korean War. Day after day, U.S. soldiers battled the North Koreans and Chinese for control of one small hill or another, without either side winning a decisive victory. Americans tired of Truman and felt he had no plan for resolving the conflict, and they turned to Dwight D. Eisenhower -- especially after the World War Two general told voters, "I shall go to Korea."
Lyndon B. Johnson had a similar experience as he saw his landslide victory melt in the Vietnamese tropical heat. A Gallup poll taken in August 1968 found just 35% giving Johnson positive marks. In many ways, LBJ foresaw his political demise, telling columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak after the 1964 election:
I was just elected by the biggest popular margin in the history of the country, fifteen million votes. Just by the natural way people think and because Barry Goldwater scared the hell out of them, I have already lost two of these fifteen and am probably getting down to thirteen. If I get into any fight with Congress, I have already lost another couple of million, and if I have to send any more boys into Vietnam, I may be down to eight million by the end of the summer.
In 1973, Richard Nixon’s presidency was caught in the web of Watergate. Gallup showed Nixon with a dismal approval rating of 30%. Repeatedly, he tried to change the focus to other issues, at one point telling Congress in 1974, "One year of Watergate is enough." But the Watergate tape revelations only intensified the media and public focus on Nixon’s wrongdoing. By the time he left office, just 24% approved of his performance, according to Gallup.
Gerald Ford, too, suffered a crippling blow to his public esteem. Starting with a breathtaking 71% job approval, his support dropped 21 points in the Gallup Poll after his decision to pardon Nixon. Declaring that Watergate had been "an American tragedy" and "someone must write the end to it," Ford hoped the pardon would turn public attention away from Nixon and toward more pressing matters -- including high energy prices and a stubbornly persistent inflation rate. But, according to Louis Harris & Associates, 60% thought Ford was wrong to issue the pardon, and 62% said it condoned two standards of justice: one for the rich and powerful; another for the ordinary citizen. Ford could never fully escape the fallout from his unpopular act. A CBS News 1976 exit poll found 14% mentioned Watergate and the Nixon pardon as an important issue, and an overwhelming percentage of these disenchanted voters backed Jimmy Carter.
Jimmy Carter was the fifth president to suffer a fatal blow in public support. At the onset of his presidency, Carter received a 66% job approval rating, according to Gallup. Yet, just three years later, Carter’s approval plummeted to 29% in the Gallup Poll. In response, Carter delivered his famous "malaise speech," declaring that there was a "crisis of confidence" in government. Voters disagreed, thinking the government mechanisms did work and that nothing was wrong with their character. Instead, they thought something was decidedly wrong with Carter’s leadership, and they ousted him in a landslide. Public disdain toward Carter persisted long after his presidency ended: a 1988 Harris poll gave Carter the dubious distinction of being first (with 46%) in the category "least able to get things done."
George H. W. Bush also suffered a fatal fall in public esteem. Shortly after the Persian Gulf War, the elder Bush won plaudits and an 89% approval rating, according to Gallup. But Americans are a restless people, and following the quick war the economy remained foremost on their minds. By 1992, voters thought Bush was inattentive to their concerns and he received a dismal 37% of the vote -- exactly his approval rating in a pre-election Gallup poll.
What unites these six failed presidencies is each man’s inability to change the subject. Harry Truman could not get the public’s mind off the Korean War. Lyndon Johnson could not get people to focus on anything else except Vietnam and race riots. Richard Nixon could not erase the airing of the Watergate tapes (even as he tried to erase them in fact). Gerald Ford could not ameliorate voter anger over the Nixon pardon. Jimmy Carter became identified with his malaise speech and the Iranian hostage crisis. And George H. W. Bush was a foreign policy president at a time when voters could have cared less.
George W. Bush is likely to share the fates of his predecessors for one reason: he can’t change the subject. Bush cannot take the focus away from the aftereffects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita; Iraq continues to drain U.S. lives and resources with no end in sight; and (thanks to Iraq and the hurricanes) the fiscal crisis facing the next president has come four years early. Even when Bush has tried to refocus attention elsewhere, voters have answered with a resounding "NO!" For example, a Gallup poll taken in July found 62% saying they disapproved of George W. Bush’s Social Security proposals.
In sum, Iraq, high gas prices, a so-so economy, and the aftereffects of the hurricanes will occupy public attention for the foreseeable future. Even a big news story -- be it the capture of Osama bin Laden, or another terrorist strike --probably won’t help Bush that much. A recent Gallup poll, for example, finds 55% believing Bin Laden will likely be captured or killed. This finding suggests that the public may have already accounted for this event. Still, were this to happen, Bush’s support would rise. Yet, each time something positive has happened to Bush, his opinion "bounce" has gotten smaller. For example, prior to Saddam Hussein’s capture, Bush received 50% approval; afterwards, his support rose to just 55%. Another spectacular terrorist attack is also unlikely to produce a reprise of the post-September 11th "let’s-rally-round-the-president" phenomenon. Rather, any assault would renew cries of the nation’s unpreparedness -- a criticism that has special resonance following Hurricane Katrina.
Democrats can’t take solace from Bush’s weaknesses. While they may win several of the off-year congressional elections by default, voters hardly see them in a favorable light. A CBS News poll (October 3-5) finds only 43% have a favorable view of congressional Democrats. One reason Bush was able to best Al Gore and John Kerry was the Democrats’ continued weaknesses on values issues. According to Zogby polling, Bill Clinton would beat George W. Bush by just two points, while John Kerry would lose again by one point. Moreover, the current Democracy Corps poll gives Democrats just 48% of the congressional ballots -- exactly the same percentages that Gore and Kerry received against Bush. As Stan Greenberg and James Carville write, "Democrats are leaving a lot of votes on the table."
As long as Democrats remain the party of Bill (and Hillary) Clinton, large numbers of southern and rural voters will view them as hostile to their cultural values. That means Democrats will struggle in presidential contests, since making the values connection is an essential prerequisite to getting a hearing on more tangible economic issues favorable to their cause. If Democrats cannot fix their values problems and Republicans continue to disappoint, voters may turn instead to a third-party candidate. There is reason to think that a credible third-party challenger can use the power of the Internet to revolutionize 21st century two-party politics. But that is another story.
What remains is that for the remainder of his presidency, George W. Bush will hover somewhere around 40% in his job approval scores. Americans will continue to be forever grateful for his leadership and resoluteness following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But, henceforth, he will govern without majority consent. Republicans may win important elections (like the 2005 Virginia governor’s race). But these victories will be in spite of George W. Bush, not because of him.
Forty-five years ago political scientist Richard Neustadt (in Presidential Power) noted that governing without consent has its consequences, as elites constantly gauge a president’s prestige: "[T]he prevalent impression of a president’s public standing tends to set a tone and to define the limits of what Washingtonians do for him, or do to him." The remainder of the Bush presidency will be more about limits, since his status has suffered a fatal blow. Consequently, the next three years will be marking time until another president with a popular mandate assumes the office.
Just nine months into his second term, Bush’s political capital is all but spent. If he were a bank, he’d have to declare bankruptcy.
George W. Bush: Handling of Domestic and Foreign Issues, Sept. 29-Oct. 2, 2005
Excellent Good Fair Poor
% % % %
Jobs and the economy 11 27 27 34
Social Security and Medicare 8 22 26 39
Education 11 31 28 28
Environment 7 28 23 38
Taxes 15 25 22 34
Health care 6 28 24 38
Hurrican Katrina 11 24 19 43
Hurrican Rita 18 31 29 17
Gas prices 6 17 23 51
War in Iraq 12 24 18 45
Foreign policy in general 13 27 25 32
The War on Terrorism 23 26 19 31
Source: Zogby International poll, September 29-October 2, 2005
Bush's Job Performance by Issue: National Score and Independents and Moderates Compared
Jobs and the economy
All likely voters 38 61
Independents 31 69
Moderates 20 78
Social Security and Medicare
All likely voters 31 65
Independents 20 76
Moderates 20 78
All likely voters 42 55
Independents 42 54
Moderates 31 66
All likely voters 35 61
Independents 24 71
Moderates 24 74
All likely voters 41 56
Independents 38 58
Moderates 30 67
All likely voters 33 62
Independents 32 64
Moderates 19 78
All likely voters 36 62
Independents 32 64
Moderates 22 77
All likely voters 49 46
Independents 44 47
Moderates 36 58
All likely voters 22 74
Independents 18 78
Moderates 11 86
War in Iraq
All likely voters 36 63
Independents 30 68
Moderates 24 76
Foreign policy in general
All likely voters 40 57
Independents 31 67
Moderates 29 68
The War on Terrorism
All likely voters 49 50
Independents 53 45
Moderates 42 57
Source: Zogby International poll, September 29-October 2, 2005