Does George W. Bush's High Popularity Mean Anything? (A Symposium of Views)

Article excerpt

BACKGROUND: It is all but universally agreed that the unusually high popularity ratings of George W. Bush to date stem from the post 9/11 war against terrorism. The President did not enjoy much of a political honeymoon in the classic sense, and the first nine months of his Administration were decidedly mixed until war broke out. Yet even several months after 9/11, when it became clear Osama Bin Laden had not yet been captured or killed, the President's poll ratings remained unexpectedly high. Even Enron-related problems so far have had little effect, although the jury is still out on whether Wall Street-related problems bring down the President's ratings.

The real question is whether George W. Bush is merely lucky, in the right place at the right time, or whether he has transcended to some new level in the public's mind, with powerful long term political significance ? Put another way, has the Bush popularity remained high simply because the American people historically rally around a leader in times of war, or is the popularity tied to Bush 's handling of the war, specifically to his Texas-style penchant for wanting to "kick ass" against a feared opponent? Perhaps the real issue here comes down to the question of what makes an individual "presidential" in the national psyche ? Has Bush achieved a destined level of presidential appropriateness in the public's mind, or would any President's poll ratings remain high under similar circumstances of long-term terrorist danger?

His Popularity Is Deceptive

President Bush's apparent popularity is deceptive. The people are supporting the Office of the Presidency, rather than Bush personally, as they always do in time of crisis.

Bush is at the mercy of events. Further acts of domestic terrorism can be blamed on the President's failure to adequately protect the country, and Senate Democrats hold a veto process over Bush's domestic agenda.

Mr. Bush, who lost the popular vote in 2000, stands no better than a 50/50 chance of re-election.

John Sears is the former campaign manager for Ronald Reagan.

The Big Drop's Coming

President Bush's approval ratings have remained high because Americans appreciate his response to the September 11 terrorist attacks on our country and because they think he's a nice guy who could visit with them at their local coffee or barber shop.

But those ratings are likely to have little long-term political significance for three reasons:

First, they're already beginning to slip. Most recent polling has the President's approval ratings dropping into the 60 percent range for the first time since before September 11. In the New York Times/CBS NewsPoll, for example, his rating fell nine points during the last two weeks of July.

Second, the President's ratings are artificially inflated because of high levels of support from Democrats and independents. That support will almost certainly diminish as we move closer to the fall elections--and even if it doesn't, it certainly is not transferable to other Republicans.

Third, most Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. That's the most important indicator of the President's political condition. The latest New York Times Poll showed voters thinking that the country is headed in the wrong direction by 14 points. That's almost identical to attitudes in 1994, when President Clinton's Democratic Party lost control of Congress in a Republican land slide. Republicans cannot take much solace in that. Neither can they take comfort in the reality that more Americans believe the condition of the economy is bad than good by 53 to 45 percent. On election day 2000, 85 percent of Americans thought the condition of the economy was good.

Add to the above a depressed stock market and a rise in the crime rate for the first time in a decade and you have conditions for a precipitous drop in the President's approval ratings--when the perceptions catch up with reality. …