By Richard S. Dunham
I have to admit I've been surprised at recent polls showing President Bush at the lowest ebb of his Presidency. Now, I'm a poll junkie, which means I know that polls are just snapshots in time and are often affected by the bad-news headline of the day. Still, the President's 51% job-approval rating in the Gallup Poll released Nov. 14 and his almost-identical 50% rating in a concurrent CBS News Poll were unexpected to those of us who thought the improving economy would help George W. Bush recover from his dip in the polls that started as soon as those Navy sailors unfurled the infamous "Mission Accomplished" banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln in May.
The President's approval ratings on the economy are up, but his overall job-performance scores are down. What's going on here? Bush's problem is that Americans just don't think the mission in Iraq has been accomplished, and more and more of them are wondering if Team Bush has a viable plan to crush the insurgency and extricate U.S. soldiers from death-by-explosion in the Iraqi sand. The casualties of 2003 are, at this point, more important to voters than the extra money in their pockets.
As they say on TV, let's go to the videotape...er, the poll numbers.
THE CHARACTER THING.
The CBS News Poll finds that 50% of voters feel the situation in Iraq is going badly -- double the 24% who felt that way in May and the gloomiest result since the fall of Saddam. Just 31% of Americans -- and only 45% of Republicans -- say Bush has a clear plan for post-war Iraq. Sixty percent think the Administration is flailing to find a solution.
Americans still believe that Bush is a man of character, but they now also see character flaws: 53% say Bush was "mostly lying" or "hiding important elements" as he made the case for war.
For his conduct of foreign policy -- long one of Bush's highest grades -- the President is now scoring at best a weak B. A Nov. 4-6 Ipsos Public Affairs Poll found that 51% of Americans approve of the President's handling of foreign policy, down from 70% in the third quarter of 2002 and its post-September 11 peak of 83%. Ratings in the neighborhood of 50% aren't bad in a deeply divided country. But for a President whose sustained high marks from 2001 into 2002 broke the records previously held by JFK and FDR, it's a tremendous comedown.
BLUNDERING TO VICTORY?
As General MacArthur, another macho commander, famously said, "There is no substitute for victory." That's exactly what the President needs -- victory, however it's defined. It could be the approval of a new Iraqi constitution, the handover of power to pro-American Iraqis, the squelching of anti-U.S. resistance, or the deaths of Saddam Hussein and/or Osama bin Laden.
Bush also could be saved politically if the Democrats nominate a candidate perceived as so far out of the mainstream that most Americans don't believe he could effectively function as a strong Commander-in-Chief. (Republican strategists are convinced that front-runner Howard Dean can be cast as a McGovernite peacenik.) But if things continue to deteriorate in Baghdad and beyond, the President's nightmare could be an election dominated by foreign policy in which he's fending off attacks from a retired four-star general (Wesley Clark) or a decorated Vietnam vet (John Kerry).
While it's impossible to predict, my gut instinct tells me Americans will forgive the Bush Administration for its lack of post-war planning if he manages to blunder his way to victory by next November.
If things are going well in Iraq, then the President is in position to take advantage of an improving economy. The polls show that Americans are not yet convinced that prosperity is upon them, but there's a cautious sense that the nation has turned the corner.
The CBS Poll shows that half the country thinks the economy is good, up from 45% a month ago. And more Americans think the economy is getting better than fear it is declining. The Ipsos poll gives the President a 49% approval rating for handling the economy -- unimpressive, but nonetheless his best performance since the wartime halo effect gave him a temporary spike last spring.
There's some reason to believe that Bush will get more credit from the voters if the robust 7.2% increase in third-quarter gross domestic product growth is repeated in early 2004. After all, most modern elections (but not the 2000 contest) have been decided on economic issues. Still, the President must figure out a way to get the U.S. out of a bloody mess in the Middle East, or today's polls could be an indicator of more trouble to come.
Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht