Political Pulse September 2005

Bush's New Low

For presidents, a 40 percent approval rating means trouble.
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President Bush's job-approval rating in the latest Gallup Poll, conducted August 22-25, is just 40 percent. That's the lowest Gallup rating ever for this president.

Forty percent means trouble. Look at previous presidents whose popularity fell that far—or lower. A bad economy was most often the reason. Gerald Ford dropped below 40 percent during the stagflation of 1975. He went on to lose the 1976 election. The "malaise" crisis—remember gas lines?—took Jimmy Carter below 40 percent in 1979 and 1980. Carter lost, too. President George H.W. Bush was below 40 for most of 1992, when the economy hit the skids and cut short his presidency.

Did Ronald Reagan ever dip below 40 percent? Yes, briefly in early 1983, when unemployment was at its highest level since the Great Depression. Republicans had just suffered a setback in the 1982 midterm elections. The economy recovered, and so did Reagan. He never dropped to 40 percent again.

It's not always the economy, stupid. The Watergate scandal brought down Richard Nixon, whose ratings were in the 20s during his final year in office. Bill Clinton's problem was overreaching. He dropped to 40 percent, briefly, during his first two years in office, when he overreached with his health care plan. That spelled disaster for the Democrats in 1994. But like Reagan, Clinton recovered. During the impeachment process, Clinton's ratings actually went up, into the 60s.

Wars can also bring presidents down. The Korean War kept Harry Truman's ratings below 40 percent for three years (1950 to '52). In fact, Truman got the lowest Gallup Poll ratings of any president on record (since 1940). The Vietnam War pulled Lyndon Johnson down in 1967 and 1968. LBJ was at 36 percent when he announced in March 1968 that he would not seek re-election.

Over the past 65 years, three presidents never dipped as low as 40 percent in the Gallup Poll. One was Franklin Roosevelt in his third and fourth terms (during World War II). Another was Dwight Eisenhower, whose low point of 49 percent approval came in 1960. The third was John F. Kennedy, who was elected with just under 50 percent of the popular vote but as president never dipped below 56 percent approval in the opinion polls.

What's dragging George W. Bush down? Iraq is the big issue on voters' minds. In June, when the Harris Poll asked people to name the most important issue facing the country, 24 percent said Iraq. Now, in an August 9-16 Harris poll, 41 percent say Iraq. That's twice as many as those who cite the economy and four times the number who say gasoline prices.

A mounting death toll in Iraq means mounting criticism. But Bush's problem is not just the loss of troops. It's also the public's loss of confidence in his policy. Do Americans think the United States is making progress or losing ground in its efforts to establish security and democracy in Iraq? Losing ground, said 50 percent of respondents in a Newsweek poll taken in early August. Forty percent said the United States is making progress.

The Newsweek poll was taken before the constitution-writing process in Iraq hit a roadblock. Instead of easing that country's ethnic and religious divisions, drafting a constitution has exposed them and increased the threat of civil war.

Author Kenneth M. Pollack, a former CIA analyst who wrote The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, now says, "We're making the same mistakes in Iraq that we made in the early part of Vietnam—focusing on offensive operations ... rather than on the real core of counter-insurgent warfare, which is protecting the Iraqi people themselves."

What about protecting the American people? According to the Newsweek poll, by more than 2-to-1, Americans think the Iraq war has not made them safer from terrorism (64 percent to 28 percent). Many people apparently reached that conclusion after the London bombings in July.

Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin is the first prominent Democrat to call for a target date for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. "The president says those who criticize his policies don't understand the lesson of 9/11," Feingold said. "I think we Democrats should point out that it's the president who doesn't really understand the lessons of 9/11—by focusing everything on Iraq and forgetting about so many other places where terrorists are causing problems."

To be sure, the war is not Bush's only problem right now. Americans are not too happy about the economy, either—not with gasoline prices at record highs. In the Gallup Poll, 63 percent of respondents said the economy is getting worse. The Bush administration is also suffering from a whiff of scandal (Who leaked that CIA agent's name?) and from overreaching: Bush's plan for private Social Security accounts looks about as dead as Clinton's health plan was.

One thing is different about Bush's low approval rating: partisan division. Bush gets 82 percent support from Republicans but only 13 percent from Democrats, 69 points lower. We've never seen party members so far apart—not even on Bill Clinton. When Clinton was at 40 percent approval in December 1994, the difference between the parties was 53 points (69 percent approval among Democrats, 16 percent among Republicans).

For President Bush, the gap means that he has kept his base among conservatives, which is something that other presidents in trouble—including his father—did not do.

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William Schneider is the Cable News Network's senior political analyst. He is also a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times, National Journal, and The Atlantic Monthly. His column appears every week in National Journal, a weekly magazine covering politics and government published in Washington, D.C.

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