By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
President Bush is a competitive guy. But this is one contest he would rather lose. With 18 months left in office, he is in the running for most unpopular president in the history of modern polling.
The latest Washington Post-ABC News survey shows that 65 percent of Americans disapprove of Bush's job performance, matching his all-time low.
In polls conducted by The Post or Gallup going back to 1938, only twice has a president exceeded that level of public animosity -- Harry S. Truman, who hit 67 percent during the Korean War, and Richard M. Nixon, who hit 66 percent four days before resigning.
The historic depth of Bush's public standing has whipsawed his White House, sapped his clout, drained his advisers, encouraged his enemies and jeopardized his legacy. Around the White House, aides make gallows-humor jokes about how they can alienate their remaining supporters -- at least those aides not heading for the door. Outside the White House, many former aides privately express anger and bitterness at their erstwhile colleagues, Bush and the fate of his presidency.
Bush has been so down for so long that some advisers maintain it no longer bothers them much. It can even, they say, be liberating. Seeking the best interpretation for the president's predicament, they argue that Bush can do what he thinks is right without regard to political cost, pointing to decisions to send more U.S. troops to Iraq and to commute the sentence of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff.
But the president's unpopularity has left the White House to play mostly defense for the remainder of his term. With his immigration overhaul proposal dead, Bush's principal legislative hopes are to save his No Child Left Behind education program and to fend off attempts to force him to change course in Iraq. The emerging strategy is to play off a Congress that is also deeply unpopular and to look strong by vetoing spending bills.
The president's low public standing has paralleled the disenchantment with the Iraq war, but some analysts said it goes beyond that, reflecting a broader unease with Bush's policies in a variety of areas. "It isn't just the Iraq war," said Shirley Anne Warshaw, a presidential scholar at Gettysburg College. "It's everything."
Some analysts believe that even many war supporters deserted him because of his plan to open the door to legal status for illegal immigrants. "You can do an unpopular war or you can do an unpopular immigration policy," said David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter. "Not both."
Yet Bush's political troubles seem to go beyond particular policies. Many presidents over the past 70 years have faced greater or more immediate crises without falling as far in the public mind -- Vietnam claimed far more American lives than Iraq, the Iranian hostage crisis made the United States look impotent, race riots and desegregation tore the country apart, the oil embargo forced drivers to wait for hours to fill up, the Soviets seemed to threaten the nation's survival.
"It's astonishing," said Pat Caddell, who was President Jimmy Carter's pollster. "It's hard to look at the situation today and say the country is absolutely 15 miles down in the hole. The economy's not that bad -- for some people it is, but not overall. Iraq is terribly handled, but it's not Vietnam; we're not losing 250 people a week. . . . We don't have that immediate crisis, yet the anxiety about the future is palpable. And the feeling about him is he's irrelevant to that. I think they've basically given up on him."
That may stem in part from the changing nature of society. When Caddell's boss was president, there were three major broadcast networks. Today cable news, talk radio and the Internet have made information far more available, while providing easy outlets for rage and polarization. Public disapproval of Bush is not only broad but deep; 52 percent of Americans "strongly" disapprove of his performance and 28 percent describe themselves as "angry."
"A lot of the commentary that comes out of the Internet world is very harsh," said Frank J. Donatelli, White House political director for Ronald Reagan. "That has a tendency to reinforce people's opinions and harden people's opinions."
Carter and Reagan at their worst moments did not face a public as hostile as the one confronting Bush. Lyndon B. Johnson at the height of Vietnam had the disapproval of 52 percent of the public. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Gerald R. Ford never had disapproval ratings reach 50 percent.
Truman and Nixon remain the most unpopular modern presidents, though barely. Truman's disapproval rating reached 67 percent in January 1952 and matched Bush's 65 percent a month later. Nixon reached 66 percent on Aug. 5, 1974, four days before he resigned amid Watergate. George H.W. Bush came close before losing his bid for reelection in 1992, with 64 percent disapproval.
The current president, though, has endured bad numbers longer than Nixon or his father did and longer than anyone other than Truman. His disapproval rating has topped 50 percent for more than two years. And although Truman hit 67 percent and 65 percent once each within a month-long period, Bush has hit his high three times in the past 14 months.
Bush advisers clutch at Truman as if he were a political life preserver. If Bush has experienced a similar collapse in public support while in office, they hope he will enjoy the same post-presidential reassessment that has made Truman look far better today than in his time. A 2004 poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner found that 58 percent of Americans viewed Truman favorably.
And the president's team takes solace in the fact that the public holds Congress in low esteem, too. More than half disapproved of Congress generally, and Democrats in particular, in the latest Post-ABC survey, though their ratings were still better than Bush's.
The deep antipathy to Bush has fueled grass-roots support for impeachment. Democrats have resolved not to do that, remembering the division when a Republican Congress impeached Bill Clinton in 1998 for perjury and obstruction of justice to cover up his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky. His public support, though, never fell as far as Bush's. Clinton's worst disapproval rating, 51 percent, came during his first term, and he soared to his highest approval rating days after the Lewinsky scandal broke.
As much as Bush advisers dismiss polls, their predecessors in the White House said public rejection invariably drags down the whole institution. "It colors everything you can do," Donatelli said. "Psychologically, it wears on you."
Caddell describes a White House down in the polls in one word: "Awful." "People start going through the motions," he added. "The energy is gone."
Assistant polling director Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.