Back by unpopular demand

Come next month, Bush's Inauguration Day approval ratings may be the worst of any president in modern-day history.

Published December 22, 2004 12:29AM (EST)

Republicans like to brag about the sweeping mandate that President Bush received on Election Day. But as he prepares for his second term, Bush approaches Inauguration Day with historically weak job-approval ratings, according to a series of new opinion polls. Unless there's a dramatic turnaround in public sentiment between now and Jan. 20, Bush will be sworn in to office with the lowest job-approval rating -- barely 50 percent -- of any president in the last 80 years, or since modern-day presidential polling began.

"It's striking how weak he is right now," says presidential historian Richard Shenkman, editor of George Mason University's History News Network. "You'd have to go back to Woodrow Wilson to find a president who was reelected in a position as weak as this one. There's been no euphoria around Bush's win."

Since his 3-percentage-point win over Sen. John Kerry, Bush has experienced a complete lack of bounce in the polls. In fact, in at least one national survey, Fox News' Opinion Dynamics poll, conducted Dec. 14-15, Bush's approval rating has fallen five points in the last month, to 48 percent. In other polls, including Washington Post-ABC, NBC/Wall Street Journal, Pew Research Center, Associated Press-Ipsos, Zogby, and Gallup, Bush's already soft approval numbers have flat-lined since the election. That phenomenon stands in sharp contrast to U.S. history, when presidents voted into office for a second term, even after close elections, routinely have received robust approval ratings.

According to an analysis posted on the Gallup Web site in mid-November, Bush's current 53 percent approval rating "is actually the lowest of any of the last seven presidents who won a second term in the first poll conducted after their re-election." Right after securing their second terms, Bill Clinton received a 58 percent approval rating, Ronald Reagan 61 percent, Richard Nixon 62 percent, Lyndon Johnson 70 percent, Dwight Eisenhower 75 percent, and Harry Truman 69 percent.

Not only is Bush's 50 percent approval rating dismal for a two-term president, it's arguably the worst for any president about to be sworn into office. The only other modern-day president with such shaky approval ratings immediately following an election win was Reagan. According to a January 1981 Gallup poll, his job approval rating stood at just 51 percent. (Since Gallup began polling in 1937, Bush and Reagan are the only two presidents to take office with job approval ratings that low.) The difference between Reagan and Bush, though, was that Reagan's disapproval rating at the time was just 13 percent. Today, Bush's negative rating hovers in the 40s. "His high disapproval numbers are astonishing," says Shenkman.

To date, the press, busy detailing the mandate that conservative Republicans feel they won in November, has taken little notice of Bush's poor showing. On Friday, the Wall Street Journal noted that its "survey shows Mr. Bush in a middling position a month after besting John Kerry." (Rather than "middling," the Journal could have just as accurately opted for "unprecedented.") And this week, as it salutes Bush as its Person of the Year, Time magazine makes only passing reference to the president's unmatched showing in the polls.

As for what's weighing down Bush's poll numbers, it seems clear that the ongoing chaos in Iraq is a major culprit. Since Election Day alone, nearly 200 American servicemen and -women have been killed in Iraq, as violence continues to spread throughout the country, 19 months after U.S. forces first invaded. According to the latest Gallup poll, 33 percent of Americans think things are going "very badly" in Iraq, a new high-water mark for that response. Meanwhile, the embarrassment over Bernard Kerik's aborted nomination as secretary of homeland security, as well as the controversy over post-9/11 intelligence reform that some renegade Republicans tried to block, likely added to Bush's post-election woes.

It might seem natural for a president who just won a bitter and exceedingly close election to suffer from soft poll numbers, considering so many people voted against him. But Americans, up until now, have traditionally rallied around the Election Day winner, no matter how close the vote. For instance, in 1948, after Truman unexpectedly won reelection by edging out Republican Thomas Dewey, his weak job-approval ratings suddenly shot up to 69 percent. (Like Bush, Truman won reelection despite having a Gallup job approval rating below 50 percent just prior to the election.)

Following the 1960 election, President John Kennedy, winning an even closer race over Nixon, enjoyed an even larger post-election bump in the polls. After just one month in office, Kennedy saw his job-approval rating jump to 72 percent.

That kind of embrace by voters was not limited to the simpler age of American politics that predated a 24-hour news cycle. Even in the wake of the bitterly divisive 2000 election, when the Supreme Court had to step in and declare Bush the winner, the president, just weeks into his first term, enjoyed a relative wellspring of goodwill. According to a CNN/Time/Gallup poll in February 2001, Bush's approval rating stood at 57 percent, compared to just 25 percent who disapproved.

It's also telling to examine the approval gap in recent presidents. According to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 60 percent approved of Clinton's performance at the time of his 1997 inauguration, compared to 38 percent who disapproved. Fast-forward to 2004 and Bush's approval gap, according to NBC/Wall Street Journal, stands at a microscopic five points; just 49 percent approve, while 44 percent disapprove of his performance in office.

That's why, come Inauguration Day, George W. Bush will likely make history as the least popular president to ever take the oath of office.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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