Bush’s sinking popularity

With his Social Security plan in a vegetative state and the Iraq war mired in chaos, the president's poll numbers are tanking. Is he pulling the Republican Party down with him?

Topics: George W. Bush, Social Security,

Bush's sinking popularity

George W. Bush lost the 2000 presidential election by half a million votes and saw the result as a mandate to rewrite the tax code and redraw the map of the world. So when he won the 2004 election by 3 million votes, liberals could have been excused for wondering what the weather would be like in Vancouver for the next four years.

Bush’s second-term agenda was so unapologetically bold — he wanted to privatize Social Security, flatten federal taxes, remake the courts and, on the side, democratize the world — it bordered on the revolutionary. In November, as liberals were sunk in the delirium of defeat, their in boxes buzzing with comic maps dividing North America into the United States of Canada and Jesusland, it seemed that nothing could rein the Republican president in.

Six months later, Bush is the dog that didn’t bite. He approaches the end of the first 100 days of his second term with approval ratings that fall below those of all other reelected presidents in the modern era. Americans aren’t happy with the direction in which the country is heading. They don’t like the economy, and they don’t like the war. They also don’t like Bush’s plans for the nation. If it isn’t already dead, Bush’s signature domestic-policy effort, the plan to privatize Social Security, is in a persistent vegetative state; hated by Democrats, independents and even Republicans, only divine intervention can save it.

Now the question is whether Bush’s sinking popularity — and his desire to stick with the unpopular Social Security plan — will hurt the Republican Party’s agenda over the next two years and beyond. The GOP continues to advocate world-changing plans. Conservatives want to amend the Constitution, alter the Senate’s rules on judicial nominees, and disrupt long-standing fiscal, environmental, global and social norms. At the same time, Bush looks boxed in. There’s no money in the federal till to implement his tax cuts. The military’s stretched too thin for him to invade another country (such as Iran). And the federal courts are holding his social agenda in check.

Some key Republicans are beginning to balk at Bush’s extremism. On questions involving the Social Security plan, or the details of the federal budget, or the confirmation of Bush’s nominees, a few moderate Republicans have begun to go against White House plans. If the American public continues to turn away from Bush, political strategists say, it’s only logical to expect more defections from their Republican representatives on Capitol Hill.

“If this guy was riding a 60 percent approval rating, it would be different,” says Ruy Teixeira, the Democratic pollster who runs the popular blog Donkey Rising. But if members of Congress begin to realize that Bush isn’t popular with the American public, “that makes them more willing to defy him.”

It’s not entirely accurate to say that the polls show the country as recently turning against Bush. What’s truer is that the country never really liked him. Only a minority of Americans have consistently agreed with his positions on most questions of policy. The main reason the majority chose him last November was his tough stance on a single issue: terrorism. Yet hard-line conservatives saw the 2004 election as a green light for right-wing radicalism — as a sign that the public wanted Social Security privatization, a change to the tax code, and a generally conservative social agenda (including a prohibition on gay marriage).

Bush was only too happy to oblige. He “has gone very public with very unpopular ideas,” says Karl Agne, a consultant who works with Democracy Corps, a political strategy organization dedicated to restoring Democrats to national prominence. Bush believed he could stake out radical positions and bring the public to his side. It’s not hard to see why: Even though he won by a slight majority, Bush had good reason to believe that he could push his issues through the Congress. As political scientist Michael Nelson has pointed out, there was something unique about Bush’s victory — he managed to expand his party’s grip on Congress, which Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, all of whom were reelected with larger popular-vote margins, failed to do.

According to Frank Newport, who runs the Gallup Poll, Bush’s popularity peaked in early February, around the time of his State of the Union address. He was on top of the world — 57 percent of those surveyed approved of his performance and 40 percent disapproved. In his speech, Bush sought to link his apparent foreign-policy successes, such as the election in Iraq, to his domestic-policy goals. Just as the American people had supported him on the war in Iraq, so, too, did Bush want them to support his judicial nominations, his tax plan and especially his goal to privatize Social Security.

That support failed to materialize — and his approval numbers have been plummeting. In Gallup’s latest poll, Bush scores a 48 percent approval rating and a disapproval rating of 49 percent. (Other surveys report similar numbers.)

Pollsters point to many reasons for Bush’s decline, including high gas prices and the Republicans’ unpopular decision to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case. But by far the main issue pushing Bush down, they say, is his ambition to privatize Social Security. It literally is the case that “the more he talks about it, the lower his ratings go,” says Newport.

But as Paul Krugman has noted, Bush’s Social Security plan is only one skein of the radicalism that runs through all of his second-term proposals — on economic policy, on social policy and on foreign policy, Bush favors right-wing ideas that, polls show, appeal to only a minority of Americans. It’s possible, then, to see the public’s rejection of the Social Security plan as a rejection of radical conservatism. Americans may have given Republicans the keys to Washington, but they didn’t want them to run roughshod over the place.

It’s not clear, though, that Republican lawmakers interpret Bush’s loss on Social Security as a sign that the public doesn’t want conservative policies. Indeed, pollsters are of mixed opinion on whether Bush’s approval ratings matter to Congress at all.

Approval ratings are by nature volatile. The public’s opinion of a politician goes up or down over time and the poll numbers don’t always reflect failure. Members of Congress understand this, says Gallup’s Newport. He points out that Congress members don’t usually decide whether to support a president based on approval ratings. What’s more, says Karlyn Bowman, a polling expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, the public has recently lost confidence in all American institutions.

Surveys show that Americans aren’t huge fans of either Republicans or Democrats in Congress. In recent months, approval ratings for the military — consistently the most beloved institution in government — have also been on the decline. If members of Congress are feeling the heat, they’re not likely to balk at the president’s low rating.

Moreover, Republicans in Congress have been subject to tremendous pressure from extremists urging them to simply ignore surveys charting American opinion. Around the time of the Schiavo case, when polls showed that the overwhelming majority of Americans rejected federal intervention to keep the brain-damaged woman alive, leaders of the religious right insisted that public opinion didn’t matter because the public simply didn’t understand the issues involved in the case.

They’re at it again. In an e-mail to supporters sent on Wednesday, Tony Perkins, who heads the Family Research Council, wrote that a recent Washington Post poll showing that Americans oppose the elimination of the Senate filibuster should not be trusted, as it reflected the Post’s biased liberal view. Gary Bauer told his supporters the same thing: “The Post hopes the poll will buckle Republican knees, particularly those of moderates who want to be thought of as independent-thinking,” the former presidential candidate wrote in his daily newsletter on Tuesday. Citing a poll conducted by the Republican National Committee that’s more supportive of his own position, Bauer concluded that “there is no reason for any Republican senator to ‘wimp out’” on the filibuster vote.

Teixeira, however, believes that Bush’s failure on Social Security and his attendant low approval ratings do upset the conventional Washington wisdom about the president — the thought that “this is a guy who always wins.” He says Bush’s low ratings may already be shaping actions on Capitol Hill.

In March, for instance, Senate Republicans disappointed the White House by proposing a budget that would reduce the size of future tax cuts over the next five years (instead of the $100 billion in tax cuts that the White House wanted, the senators proposed $70 billion). Then, seven Republican senators crossed the partisan divide to join Democrats in rejecting the Bush administration’s proposed cuts to the Medicare program. These seven — Gordon Smith of Oregon, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Mike DeWine of Ohio, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine — are all known as moderates in the GOP (what extremists sometimes call RINOs, Republicans in name only).

The cuts they rejected have been added back to the final budget bill, which was drafted in a conference committee composed of Republican leaders from the House and Senate and which will come up for a final vote in both chambers of Congress soon — as soon as Friday. It’s not clear if the moderates will risk angering their party by voting down the final bill. Already, Smith has threatened to vote against it. Whatever they do will be a good indication of their fealty to Bush.

Recently, signs of Republican opposition to Bush’s plans have become even more pronounced. Last week, in a surprise move, one Republican senator — Ohio’s George Voinovich — held up Bush’s nomination of John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations. Voinovich has since been joined by a handful of other Republicans who’ve expressed opposition to Bolton. And several Republicans have been backing away from Bush on his prized Social Security plan.

At a Senate committee hearing on Tuesday, Wyoming’s Craig Thomas, who isn’t anywhere near his party’s moderate wing, wondered whether it was a good idea to spend the trillions necessary to implement Bush’s plan. And Snowe, who’s long signaled her opposition to the Bush effort, stood firm. “Social Security became the bedrock of support for seniors in my state precisely because it’s defined and guaranteed,” she said. “What cost and what risk is it worth to erode the guaranteed benefit?”

Jeffrey Bell, a Republican political consultant, says that if Bush holds on to his Social Security plan too long, or if he vows to pass it after the 2006 election, Democrats will make it a key issue against Republicans at the polls — and Republican lawmakers aren’t looking forward to running on the platform of Social Security privatization. Bush needs to find a way to back out of the plan without causing trouble for his party, Bell says. “Part of what I’m saying is that Bush had a very successful first term in terms of his domestic legislation, but he isn’t going to run again, and he doesn’t have quite as much clout over his party members as he once did. It’s important for him to know how to take a defeat.”

However, Bell doesn’t think that Bush’s low poll numbers signify a greater problem for the GOP’s agenda. He believes, for instance, that Bush may still be able to encourage Congress to approve his tax-cutting plans, including his effort to repeal the estate tax.

But Bell and other Republicans admit that even getting tax cuts through Congress won’t be a slam dunk. Bush, after all, has spent a great deal of his time recently pointing out the fiscal imbalances in the Social Security program. In calling for more tax cuts, Bush will need to defend himself against the charge that he’s bankrupting the federal government. “It doesn’t seem appropriate to point out those problems [in Social Security] and then to say, By the way, please make my tax cuts permanent,” Bell says.

Like many Republicans, Bell argues that even if Bush faces difficulty with Congress on his domestic plans, what the president does have going for him is his foreign policy. Recent opinion surveys, however, tell another story. Despite the White House’s claim of victory in Iraq, Americans don’t like how Bush is handling the war and don’t believe the war was worth the cost. In most polls, between 40 and 50 percent of Americans say they approve of the war effort; majorities usually say they disapprove of it.

The reason is obvious, says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics: “A lot of Americans are dying there and people want out.”

Americans also don’t seem to believe Bush’s assurance that democratization of the Middle East is necessarily connected to terrorism on American soil. The public may credit Bush with positive developments in Iraq, but they’ll do it the same way that they “gave Jimmy Carter credit for the Camp David Peace Accords — it pleases them, but it doesn’t affect their immediate concerns,” Sabato says.

This development has got to be distressing to the White House. For two years, Bush has insisted that his Iraq policy would, in the long run, prove successful. Many in the White House must have expected the public to react positively to Bush when positive signs arose in Iraq. Indeed, after Iraq’s elections, Republicans couldn’t take enough credit for the wide turnout of Iraqi voters. Remember all those purple-fingered lawmakers at the State of the Union address?

It’s turned out that success in Iraq hasn’t bolstered support for Bush. The election only prompted Americans to question whether now is the time to bring American troops home. And even the success of the election is beginning to look illusory. As new horrors are emerging from Iraq, the war has once more become Bush’s albatross.

So if Bush can’t count on gaining the public’s support even when things go well in Iraq, what can he count on? Not much, according to Teixeira. “You look forward and to see what’s going to take them over that funk, and you do wonder. Is the economy going to come back strong? Probably not. Is he going to be bailed out by the outbreak of democracy in the Middle East? Well, obviously not. The election already happened and his ratings on Iraq have gone nowhere. It’s hard to see where he can win.”

None of this is to suggest that Bush is destined to fail. He and his political strategist Karl Rove have a history of performing legislative magic tricks. They’ve outmaneuvered Democrats rather brilliantly for the last five years. And both Republican and Democratic political consultants caution that fortunes change quickly in Washington. Soon, the Republicans may win their effort to eliminate the Senate’s filibuster on judicial nominees, or they may pass Bush’s energy bill or eliminate the estate tax or claim victory on any one of several policy goals they have for this legislative term.

At the same time, Democrats are not doing particularly well. So far, their primary weapon has been their united stance in opposition to Bush. Bell, the Republican pollster, says Democrats should get some credit for this; it’s a smart strategy. And liberals are more than willing to take the credit.

“Frankly our expectation was that with all three branches of government held by the Republicans, we would be in a poor position,” says Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org. But “working together with a lot of groups, we’ve held the line,” he says. “It’s been quite a surprising and encouraging and hopeful thing.”

But to fight the Republicans over the long haul, Democrats will need to do more than just oppose Bush’s policies. “I wouldn’t say Democrats have benefited from lying low,” offers Agne of Democracy Corps. “I would say Democrats are in a bad place right now. The public has a lot of questions about what they stand for.”

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>