April 19, 2007 in Opinion

Bush’s approval rating is relative

James P. Pinkerton Newsday
 

The pundits seem to agree: George W. Bush is toast, kaput. So how come the president is holding steady, even rising, in the polls? And what does that mean for 2008?

Let’s consider the weight of the punditical pile-on: Joe Klein, writing in Time magazine, sees “An Epic Collapse” – specifically, the Iraq war, the Walter Reed hospital mess, the flap over the fired U.S. attorneys. Concludes Klein: “It is increasingly difficult to imagine yet another two years of slow bleed with a leader so clearly unfit to lead.” David Ignatius, writing in the Washington Post, opines, “Simply put, the White House is losing its ability to shape events.” And Georgie Anne Geyer, appearing in the Chicago Tribune, gets personal: “George W. is the man who isn’t there this spring in Washington. … It is becoming increasingly clear that no one pays attention to the Texan with the destructive ambitions anymore. …”

So here’s a question: If Bush is falling apart so dramatically that he is in danger of simply vanishing, how come he’s hanging in there in the polls?

But don’t take my word for it. According to pollingreport.com, a nonpartisan compendium of polls, Bush’s average approval rating for April 2007 is 34.6. And what was his approval exactly a year ago, for all of April 2006? It was 35.6. Neither number is impressive, but what’s clear is that Bush is hanging in there, approval-wise – no “epic collapse.” So what gives? The answer would seem to be that Bush is not being evaluated in isolation: Instead, in the public mind, he is being compared and contrasted to the rest of Washington, D.C. – specifically, the Democrats who now control Congress.

One might ask: Has House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., acquitted herself well in her nearly four months in office? Democratic partisans will, of course, loyally defend her recent trip to Syria, but Republican partisans, demoralized for so long, now have a tempting Democratic target.

Meanwhile, Americans in the middle, influenced by centrist voices such as the Washington Post’s editorial page, probably think there’s something a little inappropriate in Pelosi’s crowding onto the foreign-policy turf of the executive branch.

And how about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has worked so hard to impose a timetable on U.S. involvement in Iraq?

Reid wanted to use congressional budget authority to oppose Bush’s war plans, but instead he has gotten himself crosswise with the Pentagon service chiefs, all four of whom joined April 9 to write a “16-star” letter to Congress, warning, “Further delay in congressional approval of money to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan … will have a profoundly negative impact on current combat operations.” In wartime politics, it’s risky to go against the wisdom of the warriors. And yet, that’s exactly what the Democrats are doing. That is, many Americans who oppose the Iraq war are nonetheless inclined to see something squirrelly about congressional attempts to “micromanage” the fighting.

So here’s the bottom line: In politics, popularity is relative. The parties are judged not by themselves but in relation to each other. The president doesn’t look so good. But if the Congress doesn’t look so good either – then the president isn’t in such bad shape.

One is reminded of a joke from President Reagan illustrating this reality of comparative politics: Two men are walking in the woods, and they see a bear coming toward them. The first man quickly puts on his running shoes. The second man says, “You can’t outrun that bear.” To which the first man responds, “I don’t have to outrun the bear – I just have to outrun you!”

Speaking of outrunning, it’s already apparent, early in 2007, that the Democrats not only inadvertently have helped Bush but, in addition, have given the Republicans good arguments for their holding on to the White House in 2008.


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