By MARSHA MERCER
Media General News Service
August 15, 2005
And yet 60 percent of people say the country is on the wrong track.
The president assures the nation we're making progress in Iraq, advancing the cause of freedom and making America safer. But military officials paint a gloomier picture with an increasingly elusive exit strategy.
And only 38 percent of people approve of Bush's handling of Iraq.
Having aced his latest physical with doctors declaring him healthier than practically anyone his age, Bush headed on a 33-day vacation at his beloved Texas ranch. But he can't relax and put work aside.
He spent most of last week on the road, trying to persuade people that life is good.
When he wasn't on his rosy scenario tour, Bush was huddling with his foreign policy and economic aides trying to figure out what to do next.
The problem is that people just aren't buying the happy talk from the White House. Several polls taken just before the summer break began indicated that Bush's popularity is on a downhill slide.
Why is good news such a hard sell?
The short answer may be that Bush never has to buy gas.
That sounds frivolous, but if Bush had to pump his own gas and watch the numbers flipping cartoon-like ever higher, he might understand why many people see the glass - or, in this case, the gas tank - as half empty. His saying it's half full doesn't make it so.
And there's the deeper problem facing Bush: credibility.
Bush has lost a significant share of public confidence. Fewer than half those surveyed in the latest AP-Ipsos poll said they think Bush is honest. Think about that.
Bush's job approval rating has sunk to 42 percent. Fifty-five percent of Americans now disapprove of the way he's handling his job.
To be sure, many people - especially in the red states - still think Bush is doing splendidly. But his support keeps dropping.
At the White House, the talk is about "the disconnect" between what Bush says and what people see.
Allan Hubbard, who heads the National Economic Council, gave his take on the disconnect on the economy.
While people generally feel good about their personal finances, Hubbard said, "there is unease about the economy in general."
He first cited high gas prices. "None of us are comfortable paying $2.50 a gallon when we go to fill up our cars with gas."
"And then secondly, you know, we are a nation at war. And obviously that causes unease. The recent bombings in London cause concern. And I think that permeates, you know, the way the American people feel about how things are going."
The administration also acknowledges that people's real wages have not risen because of the spiraling costs of health care.
Add skyrocketing college tuition, uncertainty about Social Security and fear that the housing bubble is about to burst - and it's no wonder people are spooked.
These real pocketbook issues resist happy talk from the White House.
To underscore Bush's problems, a barrel of crude oil hit a record high of $65 as Bush signed an energy bill the White House says will do nothing to combat higher gas prices.
Gasoline still may be cheaper in real terms than it was during the gas crisis of the 1970s, but millions of Americans don't remember the '70s.
Bush challenges Congress to curb spending - and then ignores his own veto threat. He signed a $286.4 billion highway bill that was $30 billion more than one he had threatened to veto. Aides insisted Bush was "proud" to sign it, because some in Congress wanted $400 billion.
On Iraq, a military official in Baghdad said we won't be able to begin withdrawing troops as soon as some were hoping. It'll be next summer at the earliest.
That distressing news came after a CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll found that 54 percent of people thought sending troops to Iraq was a mistake in the first place, and 56 percent said things were going badly for us in Iraq.
My friend Bruce, a government contracting specialist, has another explanation for the disconnect between the president and the people. Bruce likens Bush to the contractor in the old joke:
How can you tell if a military contractor is lying?
His lips are moving.
"These are the same people who said there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq," Bruce says. "How can we believe them?"
Happy talk won't inspire trust in Bruce and others who think like him. The question is whether anything can.