Can Bush Recover?

The key to a Bush recovery is still the economy. People are spending money, but they're worried.

With Halloween approaching, things are looking a bit scary for Republicans. President Bush's poll ratings hover below 40 percent. Opinion of Vice President Cheney, whose name keeps coming up in the CIA leak investigation, tilts to the negative in a Gallup poll for CNN/USA Today (43 percent favorable, 47 percent unfavorable). That's the lowest rating ever for this vice president.

Can Bush recover? The record shows that some presidents have, some haven't. Lyndon Johnson tumbled into the 30s in his second term—the Vietnam War, racial violence, student protests. Did LBJ ever go back up? Yes, briefly. It happened in April 1968, just after he announced he would not run for another term. Richard Nixon fell during the first year of his second term because of Watergate, and he just kept on falling.

President Bush's father had a spectacular fall, from near-90 percent support after the Gulf War into the 30s a year later. Everybody knows what brought him down—"the economy, stupid." Jimmy Carter? Same thing, but with a twist. Carter got a boost in the polls after the seizure of U.S. hostages in Iran. An international crisis can do that for a president. Pollsters call it the "rally effect." But it doesn't last long. In Carter's case, it lasted long enough to help him defeat a challenge from Sen. Edward Kennedy in the 1980 Democratic primaries, but not long enough for Carter to win re-election in November.

The 1982 recession brought Ronald Reagan's numbers down. But the economy came roaring back by 1984, when Reagan proclaimed "Morning in America." Reagan came roaring back, too. Reagan's numbers took another dip after the Iran-Contra scandal broke during his second term, though never below 40 percent. Within a year, however, Reagan's job approval was back above 50. How? Reagan acknowledged his errors. He conducted a major reorganization of the White House. And the economy remained robust.

Bill Clinton's downturn came in 1994, when Republicans took over Congress. But the Comeback Kid came back. How? Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress gave Clinton a big opening when they shut down the federal government at the end of 1995. But Clinton also benefited from the economic recovery. It got him re-elected. It even got him through his Year of Living Dangerously—the Monica Lewinsky scandal, when the president's ratings actually soared. If the economy is doing well, voters are willing to believe the president is doing his job. And they forgive a great deal.

So can President Bush recover from his troubles? Sure. Using the Reagan model, the first step would seem to be acknowledging his mistakes, something this president has always been reluctant to do. The second step would be a wholesale reorganization of the White House, including the dismissal of some key advisers, something else this president has been reluctant to do.

But the key to a Bush recovery is still the economy. The bad news is that Bush's latest CNN/USA Today rating on his handling of the economy shows only 35 percent approval, while 63 percent of Americans disapprove. That puzzles economists, who say the economy is actually doing rather well right now. Newsweek and Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson observes, "While the [economic] sentiment figures are pretty sour, there is this discrepancy between opinion polls and what people are actually doing in shopping malls."

They're spending and they're worrying. Why? Because there's a discrepancy between people's personal sense of financial well-being, which is still pretty high, and their view of the national economy, where they see a lot of threatening signs. "It's quite plausible," Samuelson said, "that if gasoline prices stay up, at some point consumers will say, 'You know, this is a big bite into my take-home pay, and I need to cut back on something else to make up for it.' " Two-thirds of Americans expect gas prices to cause financial hardship for their families. And two-thirds say the federal government can do something about it.

But that's not happening. What could be happening is another political revolution. Right now, when Gallup asks Americans whether the country would be better off if Democrats or Republicans controlled Congress, Democrats have a 13-point edge (45 percent to 32 percent). That's not a vote prediction. The election is a year away, and in a midterm, people vote in hundreds of separate state and local contests. But it does suggest that the Republican label has become unpopular. How unpopular? The last time Republicans were down so low was when Congress impeached Clinton in December 1998.

Right now, only 29 percent of Americans give Congress a positive job rating in the CNN/USA Today poll. That's the worst rating for Congress since 1994, when voters overthrew the Democrats' congressional majority after 40 years. Only 31 percent say they're satisfied with the way things are going in the country. Sixty-eight percent are dissatisfied. When's the last time Americans were that unhappy? There's that date again: 1994, just before the overthrow of the Democratic Congress.

These numbers convey a Halloween message for Republicans: Be afraid. Be very afraid. But maybe not yet. The election is a year away. Former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said, "A week is a long time in politics." By that standard, a year is an eternity. If the numbers are this bad for Republicans next Halloween, then it gets really scary.