Posted on April 21, 2003 in Washington Watch

For the second time in his short presidency, George W. Bush has reversed a downward slump in the polls and is now registering high public approval ratings. Recent polls place the President’s approval numbers between 61 percent and 74 percent. Just one month ago, shortly before the war began, some polls showed his approval numbers near the 50 percent level. This quick jump is no doubt due to the public perception of victory in the war with Iraq and the surge of patriotism associated with the war effort. It is worth noting that this rise and fall in public approval has, to date, been the story of the Bush presidency.

It should be remembered that Bush lost the popular vote in the 2000 presidential election and that he assumed office only after a controversial Supreme Court decision in his favor.

Whether it was the quality of his personality or the public’s desire to put the election behind them, within a short time after his inauguration, Bush’s ratings surged as the public appeared to unify behind their new leader.

Within a few months, however, the rightward drift of the Bush White House drove the President’s ratings back down. By early September 2001 his approval numbers were at a low 48 percent, nearly the same as the percentage of the vote Bush had received in the 2000 elections.

It was the President’s response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks that created his first dramatic rise in the polls.

On reflection, it wasn’t so much what Bush did, but how he did it that brought about the increase in his approval rating. While the nation was frightened and in shock, Bush went to “Ground Zero” and with his arm around the shoulder of a New York firefighter, he told the nation that he heard them and that he would lead them. Almost immediately the public responded. They embraced this President and his approval ratings soared into the high 80 percent range.

By mid-summer 2002, Bush was back down to the 50 percent range. The scent of economic scandals, a precipitous drop in the stock market and continuing economic woes, all combined to weaken the public’s confidence in the President’s leadership. While polls continued to show that Bush had the public’s confidence dealing with national security issues, his performance on economic issues received a net negative score. This was responsible for driving down the President’s overall rating.

From September to November 2002 the Bush Administration mounted a veritable campaign to press the Democratic leadership in the U.S. Senate to support the President’s Iraq policy. The effort succeeded in turning the public’s attention away from the economic downturn and scandals, giving the President a victory in the Congress, which he then used to support his successful campaign to elect more Republicans to the U.S. Senate.

But even this success was short lived and didn’t create a long lasting increase in the President’s approval ratings. By March of 2003 Bush’s numbers were back down to the mid-50 percent range and his economic policy was again receiving a strong negative rating.

The war is over and the President’s ratings are back up, though not as high as his father’s were following the 1991 Gulf War or his own were after 9/11. The public remains concerned with the sluggish economy and while some Americans came to support the war after it started at least one quarter of the public remained opposed and the support of others for the war did not translate into strong support for the President.

A recent poll, for example, showed that only 27 percent of the public thought that the U.S. economy was good and 51 percent believed that economic conditions were going to get worse. The same polls showed that when the public was asked to identify “the most important problem facing the U.S. today” the most cited response (31 percent) was “the economy”, with only 16 percent identifying “the war in Iraq” and nine percent naming “terrorism”.

And so it came as no surprise that last week Bush took a break from the war to begin what is being billed as a two-week White House campaign to focus on the President’s efforts to address the economy. And here the President appears to have a problem. In launching his effort, Bush focused on pressing Congress to support his proposal for a new substantial tax cut program. But in doing so, the President exposes a weakness. This year’s federal budget already included a $300 billion deficit-without including the costs of the Iraq war and Afghan reconstruction. As a result, moderate Republicans have joined with Democrats to oppose the President and this leaves Bush with only the support of his hard right support base. Polls show that even the public is uninterested in new tax cuts.

The question the White House must face is how to sustain this President’s public approval to insure his reelection chances in 2004. Bush’s father, it is frequently noted, won the war in 1991 and lost the 1992 election because of the public’s concern with the economy. Since George W. Bush has only been able to increase his rating beyond his 2000 base during times of crisis, his advisors are attempting to design a campaign to focus on his strong suit.

In a recent address, Bush’s top advisor noted that it was the White House’s s intention to fight the 2004 election over “the security of the country, and security from threats.” Unlike 1992 when Bush’s father lost his reelection bid, George W. Bush, this advisor suggested, “could benefit from the insecurity of the American public that is likely to remain after the Iraq war…when this war ends, we still will have a dangerous enemy in the form of international and transnational terrorism. It’s not like it’s going to be ‘Iraq is over and America can withdraw within itself again.’”

So recognizing that, in the public’s mind, the economy is the President’s weak suit and national security is his strong suit, the White House hopes to continue to focus the election on what wins Bush the strongest positive ratings. He will be presented as a “tough and decisive leader who makes tough decisions.” He will make an effort to address the economy but without compromising his conservative principles and base of support. His efforts in this area will most probably not succeed.

Where the White House will go to provide the margin of victory is back to the war on terrorism. It is here that Bush has experienced his biggest jumps in public approval and to sustain his popularity, it appears, that this is where the President will return.

The major problem for Democrats is that up until now they have refused to directly challenge the foundations of this White House effort to change the subject of the national debate. By focusing their criticism of the President on his economic policy and by largely giving way on the White House’s multi-pronged war effort, Bush has repeatedly been able to shift the debate back to his strong suit and to proceed uncontested.

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