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Bush stays the course as popularity drops
McClatchy Newspapers


August 30, 2005

WASHINGTON - As his approval numbers sink during these dog days of August, President Bush might take solace by reflecting on the roller-coast ride through history taken by one of his predecessors.

In April 1951, shortly after he removed Gen. Douglas MacArthur from command of U.S. troops in Korea, Harry Truman hit an all-time low in presidential popularity: Only 23 percent of his countrymen approved of the Missourian's job performance, the lowest such rating before or since.

Yet today, Truman regularly shows up as a Top 10 president in scholarly polls of historians and broad surveys of Americans alike, who recognize that the Marshall Plan and NATO, key marks of his administration, helped rebuild Europe and contributed to the Western allies' victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War.

"History not yet written will determine how Bush will be viewed a half-century from now," said Charles Franklin, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin. "But in the short run of politics that matters day to day, Iraq is clearly a big negative weight dragging him down and potentially threatening to drag down the Republican Party in midterm elections next year."

August is normally a slow, sultry month when political news grinds to a halt and U.S. presidents join other Americans in enjoying hard-earned vacations.

But this August has broken the mold, as Cindy Sheehan and like-minded anti-war protesters dominate the media spotlight amid continuing violence and political upheaval in Iraq.

In two opinion surveys last week, Bush's approval reached the nadir of his 67 months in office - 40 percent in the Harris Poll, 36 percent according to the American Research Group. The same polls show that clear majorities of Americans now consider Bush's decision to invade Iraq in March 2003 to have been a mistake.

Having gained re-election in November by defeating Sen. John Kerry, Bush needn't worry about the judgment of American voters again. Many analysts, though, say his fellow Republicans, especially House members who face midterm election campaigns already under way in some districts, fear a reverse coattail drag from Bush and his stay-the-course defiance on Iraq.

In addition to the president's bad polling numbers, Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican and possible 2008 presidential candidate, has fanned those fears by comparing the Iraq war to Vietnam. And Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld didn't help matters last week by committing more U.S. troops to Iraq in advance of October elections - and predicting that insurgents he once dismissed as "a few thugs" will likely step up their attacks in the coming weeks.

Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta, said the results of a recent special congressional election in Ohio sent shock waves through GOP ranks across the country.

In the Buckeye State's heavily Republican 2nd District, which Bush carried overwhelmingly last November, GOP candidate Jean Schmidt narrowly defeated Democrat Paul Hackett, a Marine veteran who returned from combat duty in Iraq to run a vigorous anti-war campaign.

"That sends a frightening message to Republican congressmen across the country who have to face the voters next year," Abramowitz said. "What's driving Bush's approval rating down is the perception that Bush's happy talk about progress in Iraq is becoming less and less credible. It contradicts what people see every day when they turn on the TV."

In the fickle vicissitudes of presidential ranking, Bush has already experienced some uncommon highs and lows.

During the days following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Bush's approval rating hit 90 percent, the highest recorded since Gallup began taking that opinion measure in 1939.

At the same time, Bush's approval ratings in January 2001 and January of this year - both in the mid-50 percentiles - were the lowest such marks of any newly elected president since the start of World War II.

Compared with the nine presidents who preceded him, Bush's average approval rating of around 50 percent puts him in the lower middle of the pack, with only Republicans Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and Democrat Jimmy Carter behind him.

Yet most of those predecessors endured periods when their approval ratings sunk lower than Bush's has hit yet, from his father's low of 29 percent to the 35 percent mark hit by both Democrat Lyndon Johnson and Republican Ronald Reagan.

During an abbreviated term cut short by assassination, Democrat John F. Kennedy holds the mark for both the highest average rating - 70 percent - and the highest low mark, 56 percent. Americans routinely count him as one of the country's greatest presidents, but historians and political scientists often rank him lower.

Despite his impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky scandal, President Clinton finished his two-term tenure at a 65 percent approval rating - the highest ever for an outgoing president.

Franklin, the University of Wisconsin political scientist, said Bush's current low approval numbers should be especially troubling to him because they come so soon after he enjoyed major legislative triumphs.

Before adjourning for the summer, Congress passed a massive energy bill and approved the Central American Free Trade Agreement, two key measures Bush had pushed since first taking office.

Like other experts, Franklin also compares Bush's resolve on Iraq to Johnson's refusal to back down on the U.S. military venture in Vietnam. Iraq now presents Bush with the same dilemma Johnson faced 40 years ago.

"If presidents compromise the credibility of our military commitments with short-term troop withdrawals and a Vietnam or an Iraq falls into chaos, then it becomes an utter failure of U.S. policy," Franklin said. "But if the troops remain and casualties mount, they face declining popularity and approval ratings."



Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.

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