The sixth-year swoon

Bush's job approval vs. likability ratings are the opposite of Clinton's at this time in his presidency, but being a great guy has its limits.

Published March 3, 2006 12:30PM (EST)

Ratified in 1951, the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution unequivocally states, "No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice. And any person who is elected more than once shall suffer the tortures of the damned and become the plaything of the Fates at the beginning of a sixth year in office."

Before you frog-march me in front of John Roberts and Samuel Alito, I will confess that I took a few artistic liberties with the second sentence of the 22nd Amendment. As James Frey might argue, it made the story better. Besides, judging from recent experience, it is true.

There is indeed something about that sixth year when the trapdoor opens in the Oval Office and the abyss beckons. Just ask Bill Clinton, who around this time in 1998 was reminded of his encounters with a garrulous former intern named Monica. The details of that bygone episode are lost in the mists of late 20th century history, but at the time it seemed quite the crisis for the Starr-crossed president.

So it is with George W. Bush as he spirals downward at a similar moment in his presidency. Despite Iraq, Katrina and even Cheney the Hunter, Bush's bedrock Republican support had been enough to prevent his approval rating from dipping below the symbolic 40 percent mark. But then Dubai hit -- and it became any port in a storm.

Republicans this week worked themselves into a swivet challenging the methodology of a CBS News poll, conducted last weekend, that showed Bush's approval rate dropping to 34 percent -- a near-Nixonian level at which presidents start talking to the portraits on the White House walls. That controversy ended abruptly Thursday when four other post-Dubai-scandal national surveys were released, all showing Bush with between 36 percent and 39 percent approval. Rather than being an outlier, the CBS poll turns out to have been prophetic, heralding a slenderized Bush base of just a tad more than one-third of the voters. At this rate, GOP congressmen will soon become as amnesiac about the identity of the president as they are about the existence of Jack Abramoff.

Polls are evanescent, and current numbers do not presage future electoral outcomes, especially when the president is not on the ballot. So rather than becoming obsessed with the bouncing numbers, it is far more useful to follow the broad trend lines. And among the most intriguing of these is the evidence that Bush's sixth-year sag is the mirror opposite of Clinton's Monica-induced meltdown.

The bipartisan Battleground Poll, conducted by Republican Ed Goeas and Democrat Celinda Lake, has been asking voters since early in the president's first term the same question about their "impression of George W. Bush as a person." For the past two years, Bush's always-high likability rating has fluctuated in a narrow band from 66 percent to the current 60 percent, based on a mid-February Battleground survey released Thursday. In short, even as Americans doubt the president's ideology and question his competence, most of them view Bush as a great guy to go out with for a glass of sarsaparilla.

Clinton was an equally paradoxical figure for pollsters. Never once in his entire second term did Clinton's job-approval rating dip below 50 percent, and for much of the time that number was hovering above 60 percent. The conundrum was that voters increasingly recoiled from Clinton as a person even as they endorsed his record as president. Typical was an April 1998 poll by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal that found that 45 percent of the voters did not like Clinton personally, even though they approved of his policies. In contrast, only a nearly invisible 2 percent of the electorate said they liked Clinton but disagreed with his positions. Back in 1998, Americans were willing to trust the country to Clinton, but most of them did not want him anywhere near their homes.

A president, of course, dreams of being both adored and admired. But as Clinton and Bush have demonstrated during their sixth-year struggles, political reality seems to offer an either-or proposition. So which is a better situation for a beleaguered second-term president: Is it the Clinton-esque "I love your work, but your personal life gives me the creeps" or the Bushian "You're a great guy, but maybe you should think about another career"?

At a Thursday press conference unveiling the Battleground survey, Goeas, the GOP pollster, pluckily argued that Bush's high likability rating offers the president an "opportunity" to turn things around. "It is a sign that the door is still open for him to make changes to his image and his approval rating," Goeas said. "Because people like you personally, they're much more willing to listen to you than shut you off." It was left to Lake, the Democrat in the mix, to point out that despite Clinton's personal crisis, the president's party gained seats in the 1998 congressional elections. As she put it, "Remember that Clinton had high job approval and low personal approval and still would have been reelected in 2000 -- and probably would be today."

The tiebreaking vote in this little political dispute should be cast by Karlyn Bowman, the polling analyst at the right-of-center American Enterprise Institute, who first alerted me to the significance of the mismatch between Bush's personal popularity and his performance ratings. "Right now," she said, "I'd rather have Clinton's [1998] numbers than Bush's."

The current president, of course, took office vowing to be so different from Clinton that he probably would have squared the Oval Office if it were architecturally possible. At that Bush has certainly succeeded; indeed, his sixth-year swoon is based on his performance rather than his personal conduct. But even for a long-ago frat boy, being likable has its limits, especially as Bush grapples with the daunting reality that he has been sentenced to three more trouble-prone years in the White House.

By Walter Shapiro

Walter Shapiro, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked as Salon's Washington bureau chief, as well as for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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