Terry M. Neal: Bush's Historically Low Poll Numbers

Roundup: Media's Take

Terry M. Neal, in the Wa Po (4-11-05):

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.

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." ...

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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