Progressive Writers Bloc

Chutes and Ladders

By David Chandler

A few weeks ago I compared the Approval Rating results for Presidents Reagan and Clinton. On our web site ( I have posted an approval rating graph for each president since Franklin Roosevelt.

The usual situation is that the approval ratings rise and fall over time as the people respond to actions of the president and world events. They usually start on a high note, following the election with the attendant optimism of a "honeymoon" period. After the honeymoon disillusion sets in and there is typically a falling off from initial support.

From there the graphs rise and fall, usually gradually, sometimes sharply. A gradual rise means that people who formerly disapproved of the president are being won over. A few at a time are reconsidering and deciding to give the president their support, or at least the benefit of the doubt. A gradually falling approval rating indicates that those who previously supported the president have become discouraged or disillusioned and have changed their minds. The gradualness of the responses is normal because people make up their minds at different rates. Sudden spikes in the graph, on the other hand, reflect major events or incidents that cause large numbers of people to change their minds immediately.

Both Reagan's and Clinton's approval ratings went through periods of gradual rise and fall, and both of them had sudden major changes in levels of support. This is to be expected. Now let's look at the data for George W. Bush.

For all the presidents since Roosevelt, the pattern of approval ratings for George W. Bush is unique. He started low, because of the outrage over the 2000 elections. If you recall, his inauguration was attended by massive demonstrations. (If you have forgotten that bit of history or perhaps weren't aware of it in the first place, see Fahrenheit 911.) From a lower than usual starting point his ratings never rallied. They stagnated and even sagged slightly.

Backing up and looking at the whole picture we see that at no time in his presidency have George W. Bush's approval ratings undergone a period of sustained gradual rise. A gradual rise would indicate that his actions or policies inspired confidence sufficient to win over former skeptics. That kind of rise has never occurred. Instead, his presidency is characterized by three singular upward spikes and otherwise unrelenting loss of support. The spikes are all associated with major events: the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, the invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003, and the capture of Saddam Hussein on December 14, 2003.

In response to 911 the people of the United States gave George W. Bush an unprecedented show of support. The 90% approval ratings following the attack 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 get-tough rhetoric with Iraq, and the constant invocation of September 11 justifying every disturbing new action, support fell and continued to fall. The American people were willing to pull together in a crisis, but as they saw 911 being used to justify a whole array of un-American policies, and as they started feeling less rather than more safe, they increasingly withdrew their support from the president.

The war in Iraq began with a spectacular, but deadly, made-for-TV fireworks show, followed by repeated attempts and repeated failures to kill Saddam Hussein. The beginning of the war brought a burst of support, as one might expect, but the numbers began falling even before the fall of Saddam Hussein's statue. This time they fell at an even faster rate than before. And they continued to fall, right through the outlandish "Mission Accomplished" spectacle and on to the present, relieved only by one last, much smaller spike, triggered by the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003.

Is George W. Bush 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 wouldn't even have had that surge had the networks played the up-close footage of his listless, incoherent behavior on 911, 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. (This is perhaps the most intriguing footage in Fahrenheit 911!)

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 (who some believe had been captured in July and kept prisoner in secret until December--see the link on our website). We may see yet another spike before November with an exquisitely timed "capture" of Osama bin Laden in a similar manner.

Other than those three spikes, the data shows that George W. Bush has utterly failed over his entire term to win over the hearts and minds of the American people and he is losing his grip on those who have supported him up until now.

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