Is "success" a failure for Bush?

With the war in Iraq off the front page, Americans are less enthusiastic about their "war-time president."

By Tim Grieve
Published March 30, 2005 1:10PM (EST)

Why are George W. Bush's approval ratings sinking to all-time lows? There are plenty of explanations: Bush's decision to enter the Terri Schiavo fray, his devotion to a Social Security that the public doesn't want, rising gas prices and worries about inflation, and the "are you still there?" ambivalence Americans sometimes show toward second-term presidents.

Today's Christian Science Monitor says it may be all of those things, but then it offers another plausible explanation: With the war in Iraq off the front pages, Americans may not be thinking of Bush as their "war-time president" anymore. The Monitor says that "progress in Iraq, starting with the holding of elections, hasn't provided the kind of polling dividends Bush might have expected. In fact, it's possible that the perception of success and the spread of democracy in Iraq works against Bush in the way his father, the first President Bush, failed to turn his own success in the first Gulf War into victory come reelection time." Marshall Whitman, a senior fellow at the Democratic Leadership Council, tells the Monitor that, once Bush is "no longer seen as a struggling wartime commander, the public focuses on more perhaps mundane matters, such as the price of gas."

If that's what's happening, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise. While voters in 2004 viewed Bush as a stronger military leader than John Kerry, they didn't much like the direction in which Bush was leading them otherwise. Six weeks before the election, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that only nine percent of the electorate wanted a second Bush term to be "a lot like" his first. Nearly 60 percent said Bush should make "major changes" in his second term.

If Bush has made major changes -- and promoting your fiercest loyalists to new jobs doesn't count -- we haven't seen them. But then, Bush never promised big changes in a second term, either. In many ways, his re-election campaign was all about the opposite. The question to ponder is not why Bush hasn't changed, but why voters who suddenly find themselves so disappointed ever thought that he would.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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