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Bush's Poll Position Is Worst on Record

Second Terms are Tough, and No President Has Banked Less Political Capital for the Fights Ahead

By Terry M. Neal
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Monday, April 11, 2005; 8:29 AM

With apologies to George Tenet, the first 100 days of President Bush's second term have been no slam-dunk.

How rough has it been? Bush has the lowest approval rating of any president at this point in his second term, according to Gallup polls going back to World War II.

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Bush's erosion of support among independents in particular has helped bring his overall approval rating down to 45 percent. Forty-nine percent disapprove of his performance.

Compare Bush's Gallup numbers taken in late March to poll numbers taken at the same point in the presidencies of the six previous men who served two terms:

Clinton: 59 percent approval versus 35 percent disapproval

Reagan: 56 percent versus 37 percent disapproval

Nixon: 57 percent versus 34 percent

Johnson: 69 percent versus 21 percent

Eisenhower: 65 percent versus 20 percent

Truman: 57 percent versus 24 percent

True enough, Bush's numbers weren't all that high to begin with. In the last Gallup poll before the election, he was at 48 percent approval to 47 percent disapproval -- yet he still won and helped his party in the process.

But second terms are often more difficult than first terms. In addition to administration scandals, the re-elected president's party often loses seats in the mid-term congressional elections. Bush will need a higher approval rating if he hopes to avoid the "Sixth Year Itch."

Only 38 percent of respondents said they believed Bush had done an excellent or good job in his first 100 days, compared to 58 percent who believed he had done a fair or poor job, according to a poll conducted March 31 to April 1 by Westhill Partners and the National Journal's Hotline.

People will analyze the data differently. But here are a few things that I believe have hurt the administration in the last few months:

• Overconfidence: The president beamed with confidence after his November defeat of John Kerry. After the election, Bush told a news conference, "I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it. It is my style." This statement was certainly no surprise, given that Bush governed as though he had a clear mandate even after losing the popular vote by a half-million to Al Gore in 2000. But the reality of Bush's victory in 2004 was that he won with 50.7 percent of the popular vote to Sen. John F. Kerry's 48.2 percent. You'd have to back to at least the early 1800s to find a president who has been re-elected by a closer margin.

The nation remains nearly evenly divided, yet Bush came out of the blocks as if he'd won by a Reaganesque landslide.

• Social Security: By the time Bush began pushing his first round of tax cuts in 2001, he had already been advocating the issue for two years, starting as a candidate in 1999. Bush made the issue his first priority, deploying his proven communications apparatus to make the case that the cuts benefited middle-class people and small business owners. By the time Bush took the nation to war in March 2003, he had been building his case, piece-by-piece, for months. But during his reelection campaign, he said little about Social Security. Had he made it a major issue, Kerry might be sitting in the White House today, a point that is reinforced by the reluctance of voters to accept Bush's proposal today. Democrats certainly would have been able to use the issue to bludgeon Bush among older voters, who also comprise the most reliable block of voters.

After the election, Bush signaled clearly that Social Security reform would be the first domestic priority of his second term, putting the issue on the table before clearly laying out the case for the need to make changes. Democrats, defying their recent inability to coalesce around anything controversial, came together on this issue and quickly used their historic advantage on Social Security to define the debate before the White House. The administration is still playing catch-up, even working to overcome skeptical Republicans. Meanwhile, most polls show the public is strongly opposed to private accounts.

• Terri Schiavo: Bush declined to cut short his vacation after the southeast Asian Tsunami disaster, even as it became clear that it would be of epic proportions. Then, months later, he interrupted another vacation in Texas to fly back to Washington in the middle of the night to sign legislation, pushed through in a rare weekend session, designed to keep a severely brain-damaged Florida woman alive. The actions of Bush and his party appeared to deviate from their stated principles supporting states' rights and the sanctity of marriage and their opposition to judge shopping. Most polls have shown widespread disapproval of the president's handling of the issue, even among Republicans.

• Iraq: The recent Iraqi elections gave supporters of the president's foreign policy something to cheer about. But then the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction -- which had been created reluctantly by the president -- issued a scathing report about the CIA's intelligence failures leading up to the war. Fortunately for the White House, the commission was tasked with analyzing the intelligence-gathering agencies, and not how the president and other policy makers used the intelligence to make the case for war. The administration has long maintained, essentially, that everyone in the world believed that Hussein was building WMD. But there was never anything close to unanimity within the intelligence community about Hussein's stockpiles or capability to deliver them. Whatever the case, the public remains dissatisfied about the president's handling of Iraq, with 41 percent approving and 54 percent disapproving, according to the Westhill Journal poll.

• The economy: A majority of Americans -- 56 percent according to the Westhill poll -- oppose the president's handling of the economy. Republicans are even feuding even among themselves about the president's agenda, disagreeing on whether to push for a new round of tax cuts or to focus on tackling a massive federal budget deficit that clearly now is more than just a short-term problem.

For the first time in his presidency, Bush made a real effort to cut and slow spending, but his budget barely nips at the edges of the massive inequity between government revenues and spending. The signature economic achievements of Bush's first months of his second term -- new laws restricting class action lawsuits and bankruptcy protections -- could be two issues that resonate little with Joe and Jane Sixpack. Congress has already pushed through legislation designed at curbing class action lawsuits -- a top priority of the corporate lobby. And the Senate has passed a bill that would make it much more difficult for people to declare Chapter 7 bankruptcy, another corporate top priority. The House appears poised to pass a similar piece of legislation.

What difference does it make that Bush poll numbers appear to be weak on all of the major issues that have come up so far in his second term? One of the enduring realities of the American presidency is that second terms are often politically tougher than first terms. What's unusual in Bush's case is that the public's typical second-term disillusionment began so early. In one sense, this matters little because Bush will never run for another election. But it could be an early sign of trouble for his party, especially when you consider that the Republican-run Congress's approval rating has dropped to its lowest point in nearly a decade, with only 40 percent or fewer approving of the job it is doing, according to several recent polls.

Among political professionals, the campaign season runs continuously. So even though there's little news about it in the nation's papers and broadcasts, both parties are already in the thick of candidate recruitment for the 2006 midterm congressional elections. Much is at stake. Elections in the sixth year of a presidency are typically perilous territory for the party of the president in power.

"There have been six of these elections in the post-World War II era (1950, 1958, 1966, 1974, 1986, and 1998). The average loss for the White House in these sixth year elections has been six Senate seats -- double the overall midterm average loss of three seats," wrote Larry J. Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, in a recent analysis.

A loss of six seats for Republicans would put Democrats back in control of the Senate. But averages are nothing more than academic debating points. In truth, each election has its own dynamic.

Clinton's Democrats lost no seats in 1998's congressional elections. But Eisenhower, who began his second term with significantly more popularity than Bush, saw his party lose 13 seats in the Senate in the 1958 midterm election.

"[Bush] got no real bounce out of the election," said nonpartisan election analyst Stuart Rothenberg. "He has had an ambitious but controversial agenda and doesn't start off with widespread support. And I think it's relevant a couple ways, both down the road and over the next six months. First it will affect candidate recruitment. And it will also impact his ability to intimidate the Hill."

Some left-wing activists are becoming increasing engaged in an effort to defeat the bankruptcy bill in the House. They appear to be energized not only by the president's troubles on the economy, but by their anger at the 18 Democrats broke ranks to support the bill in the Senate.

And the Schiavo case may complicate the GOP's efforts on other parts of its domestic agenda, particularly the nomination of conservative Bush appointees to the bench. Democrats are planning to use the Schiavo case -- and the disparaging comments made by congressional Republican leaders about the judges in that case -- to argue against the elimination of the filibuster in judicial nominations, which some Republicans are advocating.

Of course, none of Bush's problem matters if the Democrats can't get on the same page. Already the party has shown deep fissures on the Schiavo case as well as the class-action lawsuit and bankruptcy bills. Nearly as many Democrats voted for the Schiavo bill as voted against it, which will complicate the party's efforts to make a sustained case about GOP extremism in coming months.

The Republican triumph of 2004 was less about the electorate's overwhelming love for the Bush agenda than it was about the failure of Kerry and the Democrats to present an enticing and viable alternative and a cohesive vision for the future.

As it stands today, there's little evidence -- outside of the Social Security issue -- that the Democrats have changed all that much since Kerry's defeat in November. They don't appear positioned to take advantage of Bush's dropping poll numbers any more than Republicans are queuing up behind the president as a strong leader of the party. It seems in some ways that both parties are doing their best to lose.

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