Is Bush a Shoo-In for '04? Not Yet

While his popularity seems unassailable now, any of several issues could still turn voters against the President if he isn't very careful

By Douglas Harbrecht

As a young political reporter trying to plumb the dynamics of voter behavior, I did an interview 16 years ago with a regular Joe Voter from Ohio that has stayed with me ever since. During the course of our chat, he wanted to know why the Iran-contra scandal was such a big deal inside the Beltway for then-President Ronald Reagan? I tried my best to explain: In secretly trading arms for hostages, the Reagan Administration had deliberately misled Congress and precipitated a Constituional crisis. But the puzzled listener just furrowed his brow: "Yeah, but Reagan is trying to do a good job," he blurted out. "Leave him alone."

That may not sound profound. But the more I followed politics over the years, the more I came to realize the man was posing the essential judgment most voters make in deciding whether to stick with their Commander-in-Chief. Not "Is he doing a good job?" mind you. "Is he trying to do a good job?" Ever since FDR, U.S. Presidents generally have enjoyed a deep reservoir of good will with the electorate -- even among those who didn't vote for them. Get on the wrong side of this question, however, and it's over.

Think about it: Incumbent George Bush was ousted in 1992 because voters thought he had stopped trying to do a good job -- he just liked the trappings of the office. Yet, Clinton won reelection handily and could have easily won a third term, despite the tawdry Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment by Congress. Why? As Clinton liked to say over and over, "I'm just going to keep trying to do the job that the people elected me to do." Most Americans agreed and scorned the tempest in Washington. Leave him alone.

SKY-HIGH APPROVALS.

  Now comes George W. Bush, the first President since 1876 to lose the popular vote and still win the office through the Electoral College. Granted, the 2000 election seems like a lifetime ago, and Bush's ratings soared to unprecedented heights post-September 11. Even today, after two wars, three years of a bear market, an economy that continues to sputter, Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction still AWOL, and U.S. troops being picked off one by one daily by Iraqi guerrillas, Bush still commands polling heights even his father had lost much sooner after Gulf War I.

The average approval rating in the third year of every President's first term since Dwight Eisenhower has been 55% -- Bush's remain in the mid-60s. Almost two out of three voters are still sold on the notion that he's trying to do a good job.

Small wonder Bush's advisers are so smug about 2004 and Democrats so glum: According to a July 2 Gallup poll, three out of four American have concluded that the President is a "strong and decisive leader," and 65% think he's "honest and trustworthy." Those are bankable numbers in political terms, encompassing many voters who don't agree with his policies.

Never mind that Administration officials might not have been telling the truth about what they really knew about WMDs in Iraq in the lead-up to war. Forget the shameless accounting gimmicks in the tax-cut legislation Bush signed last month. He's widely seen as a strong leader trying to do a good job.

So Bush is a shoo-in next year, right? Hold on. While he enjoys decided advantages for winning reelection, the Bushies better not get too complacent. Here's why:

The Growing Mess in Iraq: No matter what the press reports, most Americans reject the idea that Bush deliberately exaggerated data about WMD in order to increase support for the war. According to a recent Harris poll, 55% of those polled still believe the U.S. government tried to be accurate. They probably won't ever be swayed to see the war as anything but justified. Democrats can pretty much shut the book on this issue.

The war's aftermath, however, is another chapter being written right now. And so far, the Bush Administration's handling of nation-building has been nothing less than inept. With every new day of sporadic blackouts in occupied Baghdad, water shortages, angry Iraqis throwing shoes at Gis instead of at Saddam's pictures and statues, and sweltering U.S. soldiers pinned down in a role they're not equipped or trained for, the perception grows that, when it comes to finishing up in Iraq, Bush isn't even trying to do a good job. Bad place to be politically (see BW Online, 7/1/03, Iraq's Destroyer Can Now Be Its Savior"). By Douglas Harbrecht What Happened to Economic Growth? While Bush excels in molding perceptions about his leadership, voters clearly aren't sold on his policies. In fact, they're downright suspicious (see BW Online, 7/3/03, "Wanted: A Politics of Generiosity"). A recent Harris poll on his tax cut showed that while a slight majority tepidly approved it, by 54% to 34%, most of those polled also think it's unfair and that the benefits will go largely to the rich. A majority preferred to see the money spent on improving health care, education, and other government programs. Small wonder the President is now heavily promoting a new Medicare prescription benefit.

Here's the election-year problem for Bush: If the two major tax cuts now enacted under his Administration -- in 2001 and this one -- don't get the economy growing again soon, the perception that he's looking out only for the rich will likely grow. The June job numbers released on July 3, with the unemployment rate spiking to 6.4%, is yet another setback.

Bush may have good will in abundance, but if the economy doesn't get back on track by yearend, he'll have a political hot potato in his hands as his reelection contest draws near. Democrats will ask: Is he trying to do a good job for all the people? Bush better have an answer.

Bush-Speak: I cringe every time Texan Bush slips on his rhetorical six-guns and blurts out something like: "Bring 'em on," the taunt he issued on July 2 to Iraqi militants who have been attacking U.S. troops. Not that it isn't colorful, even charming in a way to average voters. Americans respond to such tough, plain talk. It's action-hero stuff. But the President has a strange way of choosing colloquialisms that just don't wear well politically.

Remember how he was going to track down Osama bin Laden, dead or alive? Remember how Saddam's days were numbered? Then, suddenly, it didn't matter if the U.S. ever found him. Now, American troops are going through bombed-out buildings looking for the brutal dictator's DNA, because, like Elvis, reports of Saddam sightings are become routine in Iraq, giving Iraqis pause that he might one day return.

Like his father who suffered for calling Saddam "worse than Hitler" before Gulf War I and then pulled up short of vanquishing him, this President, too, can't quite seem to shut the lid on evildoers. Instead, his paeans to action heroics come off looking too personal, too concerned with flattering his Presidency, and not enough with getting the job done.

"Hasta la vista, baby" is powerful rhetoric, but you better back it up. Otherwise, people wonder if you're really trying to do a good job. Ronald Reagan understood this. Bush needs to come to grips with it.

CLOSER CONTEST?

  Yes, the President enjoys many advantages going into 2004. He has the largest campaign warchest in history, a bevy of lesser-known Democratic wannabes squabbling among themselves, and a huge reservoir of good will with the American people. But even blowouts in Presidential reelection contests rarely exceed a victory margin of 10 percentage points. (Remember Clinton's never-in-doubt reelection over Republican Bob Dole in 1996? Eight points -- 49% to 41%, with 8% voting for Ross Perot.)

A year truly is a lifetime in politics. As this year plays out, especially if the Democrats can cull a credible challenger, by the campaign's official opening on Labor Day 2004 the issue of Bush being reelected could be a lot closer than people realize today. The key question is whether he'll still have Joe and Jane Voter thinking, "He's trying to do a good job. Leave him alone."

Harbrecht, senior news editor for BusinessWeek Online, is former White House and congressional correspondent for BusinessWeek magazine

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