Haunted Honeymoon

Second honeymoons are nice, but President Bush isn't getting one.

In December, a little over a month after Bush won re-election, three different polls showed his job-approval rating below 50 percent (49 percent in the Gallup and Time polls, and 48 percent in the Washington Post/ABC News poll). How does that compare with other re-elected presidents?

Bill Clinton got a second honeymoon, posting a 58 percent job-approval rating in the Gallup Poll a month after winning re-election in 1996. Ronald Reagan? Fifty-nine percent in December 1984. Richard Nixon? Also 59. Lyndon Johnson? Sixty-nine percent. The greatest love affair on a second honeymoon? Dwight Eisenhower: 79 percent of Americans approved of the way he was handling his job a month after he won re-election in 1956, according to Gallup.

What's wrong with Bush? The answer is Iraq. "The fact is, we are in more trouble in Iraq today than we have ever been in," Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., said last month. "We're putting 12,000 to 15,000 new troops there. We've got 1,300 [Americans] killed in Iraq, over 10,000 wounded, over 5,000 wounded seriously; $200 billion of American taxpayer money has gone in there, and we're not even sure if we can protect Iraqis enough to hold an election."

Most Americans share Hagel's exasperation. In Gallup's January 2004 poll, 60 percent of the public approved of the way the United States was handling the situation in Iraq. In December, that number was down to 39 percent.

Bush acknowledged at his December 20 press conference, "No question about it—the bombers are having an effect.... They're trying to shake the will of the Iraqi people and, frankly, trying to shake the will of the American people." They may be succeeding. Last January, 63 percent of Americans thought the U.S. decision to go to war with Iraq was right. In December, a majority said that the war was wrong.

Just after his re-election in November, Bush announced his second-term agenda. "I've earned capital in this election," he declared, "and I'm going to spend it for what I told the people I'd spend it on, which is—you've heard the agenda—Social Security and tax reform, moving this economy forward, education, fighting and winning the war on terror." The president didn't mention Iraq, the issue that has already devoured most of that political capital.

The Gallup Poll asked Americans to rate the importance of 18 different issues facing the president and Congress. The only issue a majority of Americans (51 percent) rated "extremely important" was Iraq. It was followed by terrorism, which 49 percent rated extremely important. What about Bush's top priorities? The public rated Social Security fairly high (40 percent said "extremely important"). Taxes were much lower (26 percent). And remember all the post-election talk about "moral values"? Abortion and same-sex marriage were at the very bottom of the list (19 and 16 percent, respectively).

Concern over terrorism, while still high, has been dropping. Americans seem to feel safer. Look at what's happened to the number of people who call terrorism an extremely important issue. Seventy percent felt that way in October 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks. By January 2002, that figure had dropped to 62 percent. A year later, it was 59 percent. Last month, it was 49 percent—drawing less than a majority for the first time.

Does the public think that a major terrorist attack will occur in the United States within the next year? Nearly 60 percent say no. Are people worried that they or someone in their family will become a victim of terrorism? Again, nearly 60 percent say no.

With Americans feeling more secure, Bush is ready to move on the domestic front. "Social Security reform will be at the top of my agenda," he said last month. But the public is split down the middle on the question of allowing workers to invest part of their Social Security taxes in private accounts: 48 percent favor the idea, 48 percent oppose it. Younger Americans like the idea, which gets majority support from those under age 50. Support drops sharply among Americans over 50.

Higher-income Americans want private accounts; lower-income Americans don't. Older and poorer Americans are more likely to rely on Social Security and to resist Bush's efforts to change it. Their cause is championed by Democrats, who are likely to fight changes in Social Security tooth and claw. AARP, meanwhile, is beginning a $5 million advertising campaign that will oppose Bush's proposal for private accounts.

The public's agenda is different from Bush's agenda. The public agenda is dominated by one issue, an issue that's been growing in importance and is likely to continue to grow with each day's terrible news from Iraq.

As retired Maj. Gen. Don Shepperd said last month, "The American public—that's the other tipping point we have to watch for. How long will the American public stick with this when our kids are getting killed every day, and it doesn't look like there's a light at the end of the tunnel?"

The light at the end of the tunnel is supposed to be this month's election in Iraq. Until that light goes on, the rest of Bush's agenda could be left in the dark.