President Bush has survived summers of discontent before. But this season's doldrums -- reflected in dismal poll numbers and a surprisingly weak Republican showing in a special Ohio congressional election -- will be harder to surmount. They are the culmination of doubts about Bush that have germinated below the surface of public opinion for much of his presidency.
Typical of the polls was a Newsweek survey released over the weekend. It showed Bush with a 42 percent approval rating, matching the lowest of his presidency. Only 34 percent approved of his handling of the war in Iraq. A remarkable 61 percent disapproved.
The race in Ohio, where Democrat Paul Hackett, an Iraq war veteran, managed 48 percent of the vote in a district Bush carried with 64 percent last year, has Republicans scrambling for alibis. Many in the party are ascribing the narrowness of former state representative Jean Schmidt's victory to flaws in her campaign and her candidacy. The search for a scapegoat is the surest sign that the GOP knows something is badly wrong.
Bush's obvious problem is Iraq. The sharp rise in casualties over the past fortnight has pushed the war back onto the television news and aggravated opposition. Less noticed is that from its inception, this war was never broadly popular. The president also had a difficult summer in 2002 when he began selling the war. One Republican politician after another returned from that summer's recess reporting, in the popular phrase of the time, that the president had not yet "made the case" for war.
An ABC News poll in early September 2002 found that while 56 percent of Americans favored military action to depose Saddam Hussein, a quarter of that support melted away when respondents were asked if they would still back the war in the face of opposition from American allies. From the beginning, in other words, hard-core support for the war has never amounted to much more than 40 percent.
Yes, the war became more popular whenever the news in Iraq was good. But underlying doubts place a special burden on the president to persuade Americans again whenever the Iraq news goes bad. Instead of making the case for the war itself, the president has preferred to emphasize his steadfastness -- which may, in difficult times, translate to many voters as stubbornness.
Americans, says Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster, don't want to "relitigate" the war, but "feel he got into this without a real plan for success." Garin adds: "They're very frustrated that the president has gotten us into a situation where there are no good choices."
A Republican consultant who asked not to be named said that Bush needed to respond to the casualty reports. "If you're going to ask people to make sacrifices, you have to tell them why," this consultant says. "We're not defining this so people understand what the sacrifices are for."
Two other factors are hurting Bush. In misreading his reelection as a "mandate" for his proposals to create private Social Security accounts, the president set off on a mission that few voters felt they had assigned him. And months of gloomy talk about an impending Social Security "crisis" reinforced doubts about the state of an economy that Bush has only recently begun to talk up.
Moreover, Bush has in the past engaged in a careful two-step on social issues, presenting himself as a social conservative but using conciliatory language to reassure socially moderate voters. Since the election, the controversy over the Terri Schiavo case -- and, more recently, the president's endorsement of teaching "intelligent design" in the public schools -- has upset the balancing act and painted Bush and his party as firmly in the socially conservative camp.
Iraq certainly played a role in Hackett's showing in Ohio. But the closeness of the contest may also have reflected disaffection among moderate Republicans and independents.
Schmidt, some Republicans believe, may have been too socially conservative for such voters. Moderates may still have harbored unhappiness over the intervention of outside conservative groups in the district's Republican primary against Pat DeWine, the son of Sen. Mike DeWine. The social conservatives' first choice, former Rep. Bob McEwen, also lost that primary, but Schmidt was closer than DeWine to the conservative camp.
Underestimating Bush is always a mistake. In the past, the president has come roaring out of his Texas vacation pursuing strategies for recovery that usually included sharp attacks against his opponents. But attacks may not be enough anymore. Bush's arguments on Iraq are faltering, his Social Security ideas have backfired and his party's intense moral conservatism is becoming a liability. This time, the discontent may not be seasonal.