The Post-ABC polls show 42 percent of Americans approve of the Chuck Hagel nomination. This is poor by any historical measure. At the time of her nomination, Hillary Clinton got the support of 71 percent of Americans in a CNN poll taken in December, 2008, while 83 percent approved of Robert Gates continuing as secretary of defense. Defense secretaries, and to an even greater extent secretaries of state, have generally enjoyed excellent ratings form the public, perhaps because they are seen to be above the political fray. Even at the time of his resignation, Donald Rumsfeld’s approval hovered in the 50 percent range.

President Bush with failed Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers. (Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images)

Moreover, Hagel is unusually polarizing for a defense secretary. The Post-ABC poll shows “the president’s nominee peaks at 61 percent among Democrats, drops to 40 percent among independents and then again to just 28 percent with Republicans. More Republicans (35 percent) oppose Hagel’s selection, with about twice as many holding strongly unfavorable views as hold strongly favorable views.” Roughly a third of Americans have no opinion of him. In short, for Republican senators, should the numbers remain constant, there is no upside with voters in voting to confirm Hagel and for Democrats in red states a vote to confirm Hagel is problematic, at best.

Hagel’s approval mirrors that of John Ashcroft (ranging from 54 to 26 percent), who had a contentious confirmation process in 2001 (drawing 42 no votes) and Harriet Miers (44 percent), whose nomination to the Supreme Court was pulled in 2005.

The White House has been on defense since the Hagel nomination, and even before. Opponents of the nomination, who are launching a full-throttle public campaign against him, have been making their case while the Obama team has tried to deflect the incoming barrage of negatives. What the White House hasn’t done is make an effective affirmative case for Hagel aside from the fact he is a veteran. Unless they do so, Hagel’s numbers are likely to get worse leading up to the confirmation hearings.