Political Pulse August 2006

No Rallying 'Round Bush

Only one Bush administration figure is getting high marks: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
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It's been a summer of world crises—in the Middle East, Iraq, and now maybe Cuba. At times of international tension, the American public usually rallies around the president. Is that happening now?

President Bush's latest job-approval rating, in a CNN poll taken by Opinion Research, is 40 percent. That score is in line with several other polls taken in the past two weeks: the Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll (40 percent), RT Strategies (39 percent), and USA Today/Gallup (40 percent).

Bush's 40 percent approval figure appears to be a slight improvement over his average of 37 percent in June, although a 3-point gain is not significant. Moreover, the number of Americans who disapprove of Bush's performance—59 percent in the CNN poll—is very high. It doesn't look like much of a rally.

But one Bush administration figure is getting high marks. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's job approval in the CNN poll is 62 percent, much higher than her boss's. Rice is the most popular member of the administration. Rice-for-President organizations are springing up. They appear to be genuine grassroots efforts, according to seasoned Republican political consultant Charles Black. "I think it's pretty much an amateur effort by sincere people," he said. "I can't find any of the professionals that I know who are playing the Wizard of Oz here."

The interest in Rice's running for the White House is also driven by the fact that no candidate has emerged to carry the Bush legacy in 2008. Vice President Cheney and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush insist they're not running. Conservatives do not have a clear favorite. The GOP front-runners, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, have uneasy relationships with conservatives and with Bush.

Rice has shown no interest in becoming a candidate, but she hasn't ruled it out. And she has avoided taking stands on controversial domestic issues. Would she be acceptable to conservatives? "A lot of conservatives are not as demanding as they used to be about people coming down with them 100 percent of the time," Black said.

Rice might be able to help the GOP in 2008 even if she were not at the top of the ticket. "I do believe that the eventual Republican nominee is almost certain to have her on the list for vice president," Black said.

Rice does have one huge problem: She is the bearer of the Bush legacy in world affairs. That means, more than anything else, Iraq. Sixty percent of Americans oppose the war, according to the latest CNN poll, and 57 percent favor a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops.

The public disapproves of Bush's handling of Iraq, 62 percent to 36 percent. His handling of the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah draws mixed reviews: 43 percent approve; 46 percent disapprove. What has Bush done to earn better marks on the Middle East? He has kept the United States out of the fighting. And he has expressed support for Israel. More than two-thirds of Americans (68 percent) say they sympathize with Israel in this conflict. That percentage has been increasing since the conflict began. No division there.

But there is division over what Israel should do now. Forty-six percent of Americans say that Israel should continue military action until Hezbollah can no longer launch attacks, while 44 percent want Israel to agree to an immediate cease-fire. And there's a partisan split. Most Republicans favor continued military action; most Democrats want a cease-fire.

Americans are also divided over whether U.S. troops should participate in an international peacekeeping force on the border between Israel and Lebanon. Fifty-one percent favor the idea, but 45 percent oppose it. That split is not partisan, however. If the force is international and its purpose is peacekeeping, both Democrats and Republicans are inclined to go along.

Rice says her goal is a "sustainable cease-fire" and an international peacekeeping force. That would be a substantial diplomatic achievement. It wouldn't do her any harm politically either. As she said last week to TV host Larry King, "If you're going to do this job, it's great to be doing it at this time of consequence."

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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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