How's Bush doing? A historical perspective

By Eric Boehlert

Published January 18, 2005 4:14PM (EST)

Writing up the latest results from its ABC News/Washington Post poll, which shows President Bush receiving surprisingly soft support for a just-reelected president, the Post falls down when it attempts to put Bush's weak standing -- a 52 percent approval rating-- in historical perspective.

By way of comparison, following President Clinton's second term win in 1996, his Inauguration Day approval rating stood at a robust 62 percent, which at the time was the best he'd ever posted while in office. That bump followed a time-honored tradition of Americans rallying around newly elected presidents, and specifically those who'd won a second term. For instance, Ronald Reagan's approval ratings stood at 64 percent in January 1985. Bush though, has proven to be the glaring exception to that rule.

The Post touches on that: "The president's overall job approval rating stands at 52 percent, up slightly in the past month. Of all presidents in the post-war era who won reelection, only Richard M. Nixon had a lower job approval rating at the start of his second term. The other chief executives began their second term with job ratings of 60 percent or higher."

The Post, though, offers no historical context. If the paper had, it would have cast Bush's current standing in an even more negative light. The facts are that upon easily winning reelection in 1972, Nixon enjoyed a 59 percent approval rating, according to Gallup. The reason Nixon's rating quickly nose-dived to 51 percent in Gallup's Jan. 12-15 survey was that the poll came on the heels of Nixon's controversial decision to bomb North Vietnamese population centers, such as Hanoi and Haiphong, without pause from Dec. 18 to Dec. 30. Otherwise known as the Christmas Bombing, the raids killed an estimated 1,600 civilians; 70 U.S. airmen were either captured or killed. The bombing was condemned worldwide, and for an American public fed up with nearly a decade of war in Vietnam, it sparked a new round of street protests as well as knocking Nixon's approval ratings down nearly 10 points in one month. Yet even against that stark backdrop, Nixon's rating was just one point below Bush's current standing, despite the fact that Bush -- unlike Nixon -- has made no bold or controversial initiatives since November.

As for Nixon, less than two weeks after his inauguration, during a nationally televised address, he announced the U.S had reached an agreement to end the war, and his approval rating shot up to 67 percent by the end of the month. (The U.S. actually stayed and fought in Vietnam for two more years.) Unless Bush can announce in coming weeks that he's reached an agreement to end the war in Iraq, don't expect his public standing to improve anytime soon.

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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