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A White House Engulfed by Troubles


Sooner or later, second-term Presidencies go downhill. But George W. Bush’s is going downhill a little too quickly for his comfort. Of the post-World War II Chief Executives, only Richard Nixon’s second term produced a sharper growth in disapproval than Bush’s.

Table 1. Second Term Presidential Approval Ratings

President Poll Date Approve Disapprove No Opinion
Truman September 1949 51 31 16
Eisenhower September 1957 59 23 18
Johnson September 1965 64 25 11
Nixon September 1973 34 56 11
Reagan September 1985 60 30 10
Clinton September 1997 61 28 11
G.W. Bush end of Aug. 2005 45 52 3

The information in the table above is taken from surveys conducted by the Gallup Organization at similar periods in each incumbent’s second term. Not only are the approve/disapprove statistics useful for each president, but the incredibly low “no opinion” number for Bush in comparison to the others is further illustration of the current polarized partisan divide. The figure below charts Bush’s approval rating since his innaguration in 2001, as measured by the Gallup Poll.

Figure 1. Bush Approval Ratings, February 2001 to September 2005

It is not hard to see why it has happened this way:

Partisan Divisions

The 2004 election was close and divisive, and partisanship was intensified on both sides. Republicans and Democrats never reunited after the election, even for President Bush’s second inauguration–normally a time of optimism and hope about the future. We have seen almost every major issue concerning the President split along party lines since, including–incredibly–the handling of Hurricane Katrina. An overwhelming majority of Republicans thinks Bush has performed well in hurricane relief, and an equally overwhelming majority of Democrats are critical of that performance. (More on the hurricane’s aftermath below.) This kind of enduring partisan split is not auspicious for a Presidency with big second-term ambitions. [Shameless plug, ordered by the publisher against our will: We have just officially released our new book DIVIDED STATES OF AMERICA: The Slash and Burn Politics of the 2004 Presidential Election, which you can order here. This volume explains the how and why of a historic polarizing election whose effects will linger throughout the Bush Presidency and beyond. Be the first on your block to possess a copy!]

The Iraq War

Even before Cindy Sheehan’s summer of protest at Crawford, Texas, a majority of Americans had turned against the war. The conflict was lasting too long and costing too much, especially in terms of American lives, and the violence on the ground has prevented any light from shining through at the end of the tunnel. As usual, the leading indicator of public opinion has been troop deaths. As the number of fatalities in Iraq has climbed to nearly 1,900, one could almost feel the change in temperature as warm support turned to cool opposition. Interestingly, this has occurred even though the average number of casualties on a weekly basis pales in comparison to the awful totals during the Vietnam War, and the Vietnam-era draft is long gone. Why the change? Perhaps it is some combination of the evolving standards in society about how many war deaths will be tolerated, plus the multi-media, around-the-clock Iraq coverage compared to earlier wars, and the cynical aftermath of the discovery that one of our justifications for the invasion, weapons of mass destruction, was apparently baseless. President Bush, determined to stick to his guns in Iraq, has only one way out: success in quelling the insurgency and establishing a self-sustaining government. And it is difficult to be upbeat about these prospects at the moment.

Gas Prices

Even before Hurricane Katrina, the price of gas was skyrocketing. This is a disaster for many of the working poor, and now gasoline costs are above the point where better-off middle class families can ignore them. Presidents do not control the price of gas, but when gas-deprived Americans catch cold, they give pneumonia to a President’s approval ratings. This was true for Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter–and none of them was a Texas oil man. Both George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are tied closely to the oil industry in the public’s mind, and this makes it much easier for people to assign blame to them, however unfair that may be. The law of supply and demand has never been one many Americans understand, and as a result, they vigorously insist that oil companies–and everyone associated with them–are gouging the public. The soaring profits of many energy corporations make that a hard argument for the Bush administration to refute. It won’t even try, and if gas stays high–a certainty for the short term, and maybe the long term–it is impossible to see how Bush’s popularity will not continue to suffer.

Post-Katrina Fury

Hurricane Katrina produced the fastest blame game in history. Americans sat slack-jawed as they watched many thousands of their fellow citizens in Louisiana and Mississippi suffer horrendously in the wake of a devastating hurricane. Where was the cavalry? Where were our helicopters dropping food and water? How could we take care of tsunami victims a world away faster and better than we administered aid to our own citizens? These questions, unanswered so far, have been heard in every possible public square over the last ten days. Fair or not, the anger has been directed at the President, and this is inevitable. Yes, a good case can be made that Governor Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana and Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans, both Democrats, bear a great deal of the responsibility for the ineffective evacuation of the city and the subsequent calamity in the Big Easy and the Bayou State. Both were unimpressive at a moment of crisis, and in time, their decisions–or lack of them–will be judged harshly. But, very few Americans had heard of either public official before this crisis, and despite the undisputed fact that disaster planning and execution is primarily a state and local function, most people believe that the federal government is responsible. That means President Bush. Add to this the fact that the Federal Emergency Management Agency became well known in the Clinton White House years for its work in hurricane relief. Even President Clinton’s toughest critics admit that he and his FEMA director, James Lee Witt, did an especially good job in upgrading the delivery of disaster assistance during the 1990s. So expectations were high, and eyes were on Washington.

Unfortunately for the President, Bush was on vacation in Crawford, not at work in the oval Office, and his FEMA director, Mike Brown, came across as a bumbling disaster. Foolishly, when Bush joined up with Brown to view the Gulf Coast, he intentionally turned to his appointee and cracked, “You’re doing a heck of a job, Brownie!” Most Americans would have agreed, had the President’s voice been dripping with sarcasm. It wasn’t. In the last few days, conditions have improved somewhat in the affected areas, but a decade-long, $150 billion-plus rebuilding process is ahead. Also ahead is a nasty series of investigations that will inevitably inflict further damage on Bush as more sordid information about the lack of quick action is uncovered. Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin may be hurt, too, but who outside of Louisiana will care? The only political figure to gain from this natural and man-made fiasco is Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour (R), whose leadership, while not perfect, was reminiscent of Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s after September 11th. (Hmmm…A Giuliani-Barbour ticket in 2008? Or is it Barbour-Giuliani? The North-South balance would be irresistible, and the sharp combination of extreme regional accents would require simultaneous translation on the campaign trail.) Meanwhile, the untold human misery on the Gulf continues and even climbs, and every American without exception is called upon to give generously and help the hundreds of thousands whose struggle for normalcy has only begun.

The Future

It isn’t just the “Who Lost New Orleans” Commission that should worry the Bush White House, nor the continuing crisis in Iraq or rising gas prices, as serious as all of these things are. President Bush has three and a half years left to serve, and his ratings appear stuck near 40 percent. He is now in a position where he must play to his conservative base even more ardently, just to maintain that low level of support. Yet playing to the base alone will deepen partisan divisions and alienate the moderate Independents he needs to win back to climb back to or over 50 percent–the level of backing at which a President can make real progress on his agenda.

Skillful moves, such as his Chief Justice nomination of the able John Roberts, can help. But is there another Roberts out there for the vacant Associate Justice seat, someone who can please the base without generating a firestorm among liberals, moderates, and the news media? What about his Social Security proposal, which may need an infusion of stem cells just to attain moribund status? How can he secure his “death tax” relief, make permanent his other tax cuts, and seek major tax reform without pouring barrels of red ink on top of the existing sea of national debt–especially given the new, unavoidable costs of rebuilding the Gulf Coast? Oh, and did we mention there’s an election around the corner, in November 2006? As Democrats recruit House and Senate candidates across the country (more on this next week), will Bush be able to avoid Ronald Reagan’s fate of losing his base in Congress in the sixth-year election? Unanswered, difficult queries all, just like the nagging questions about the post-Katrina debacle. For George W. Bush, it only gets tougher, and the second term has barely begun.

In the next update the Crystal Ball will kick off the post-Labor Day campaign season with a fresh look at Senate 2006 and Governor 2005/2006, with analysis updates for the key races. Stay tuned!

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