(A spring 2006 update of a similar article written before the 2004 election)
By David Chandler
have an objective measure of public satisfaction with presidential job
performance. It's called the "Approval Rating," one of the most
important benchmarks we have in assessing a president's standing with
the public. It is a question slipped into surveys by the Gallup polling
organization and others since 1937. "Do you approve of the way ________
is handling his job as President?"
Thereafter, the ratings rise and fall, usually gradually, sometimes sharply. A gradual rise means the president's actions are inspiring confidence sufficient to win over former skeptics. A gradually falling approval rating indicates that those who previously supported the president have, little by little, become discouraged or disillusioned. Public response changes gradually, even when performance is constant, because people are usually slow to change their minds. Sudden spikes in the graph, on the other hand, reflect major events or incidents that cause large numbers of people to take an immediate stand.
Among all presidents since 1937, the pattern of approval ratings for George W. Bush is unique. He started low (around 55%), because of the outrage over the 2000 elections. If you recall, his inauguration was attended by mass demonstrations, questioning the legitimacy of the "selection" process. (If you have forgotten that bit of history, see Fahrenheit 911.) There was no honeymoon period. His ratings stayed flat, or even sagged slightly for the first eight months of his presidency. No one who opposed Bush initially was being won over, due to his actual performance in office.
Instead, the graph for Bush's presidency is characterized by three singular upward spikes, each associated with major events. The 85-90% approval ratings following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 are the highest on record for any president since approval polling began. It is an indication of the faith and optimism of the American people that they rallied together in this way, but the approval high was short-lived. Almost immediately the approval ratings began a long, steep decline, at an amazingly constant rate. Through the passage of the Patriot Act, the war in Afghanistan, the formation of the Department of Homeland Security, the mass detentions and deportations, the get-tough rhetoric with Iraq, and the constant invocation of 9/11 justifying every disturbing new action, support fell and continued to fall. Bush squandered the good will of the American people, who were willing to pull together in a crisis, but were unwilling to see 9/11 used to justify a whole array of un-American policies. As they started feeling less rather than more safe, they increasingly withdrew their support from the president.
The next spike was a flurry of support at the start of the Iraq war. The war began with a spectacular, but deadly, made-for-TV fireworks show, followed by repeated failed attempts to kill Saddam Hussein. The start of the war brought support to the 70% level, but the numbers began falling again even before the fall of Saddam Hussein's statue. This time approval ratings fell even faster than before. And they continued to fall, right through the outlandish "Mission Accomplished" spectacle to new record lows.
The last spike, hardly noticeable in magnitude or duration, surrounded the capture of Saddam Hussein on December 14, 2003. Even at the peak of this blip Bush's approval ratings rose only to the 55% level that marked the start of his presidency.
At no time since the capture of Saddam Hussein has Bush's approval rating returned even to that dismal level. The only letup in the freefall was the election campaign with its swiftboat dominated media frenzy. Even with that slight rally, his approval ratings barely reached 50%, and his ratings have fallen continually ever since. The only "blip" since then was a small downward spike near the end of 2005, probably motivated by the indictments surrounding the Whitehouse investigation, although any number of other scandals are equal contenders.
Bush's approval has now sunk even lower than the downward spike of late 2005. At the time of this writing approval is at a new record low of 33%. The population is suffering from scandal fatigue. Torture, lies, gross incompetence, high crimes and misdomenors,... hardly anyone raises an eyebrow any more. All is met with stonewalling, denials, and a constant drumbeat of cheerleading at Fox News.
At one point George W. Bush could briefly claim to be the most popular president in recent history. He rode the crest of outrage over a devastating terrorist attack to his fifteen minutes of glory. He might not even have had that surge had the networks played the close-up footage of his listless, incoherent behavior on 9/11, going into the classroom AFTER he knew the first tower had been hit and failing to take any action even after being informed that the second tower was hit.
Again in March 2003 he capitalized on the surge of "support our troops" sentiment as he launched a bloody and foolish war, and he briefly rode the spectacle of capturing and publicly humiliating the designated representative of evil incarnate, Saddam Hussein.
The data shows that George W. Bush has utterly failed over his entire tenure to win over the hearts and minds of the American people at large, and as our boys keep dying and the cost of the war appears headed for the trillion dollar mark, he is even slowly losing his grip on "his base."
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