Cracks appear in Bush's armor
By SARA FRITZ
The president's supporters worry that his weak spot may be the same as his father's: the economy. An uncertain war in Iraq isn't helping.
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 14, 2003
WASHINGTON - Ever since President Bush entered national politics, he has made a point to avoid the mistakes of his father.
He has distinguished himself from the first President Bush by spurning all talk of tax increases to balance the budget, by focusing on economic problems his father was accused of ignoring and by doing more to appeal to the Republican Party's right wing.
Yet the president may be as vulnerable to a Democratic challenger in 2004 as his father was in 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected president.
The president is already being attacked by Democrats for his conduct of the war in Iraq, and Bush's supporters fear his bigger vulnerability in 2004 may be the economy.
"I believe that George is in a strong position if the economy gets stronger," Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother, said during a visit to Washington last week. "If the economy is strong, then he'll win a huge victory. But if the economy weakens, he'll have a real fight on his hands."
The latest poll by the independent Pew Research Center shows 53 percent of Americans approve of the job Bush is doing; 37 percent disapprove. This is 2 percentage points below his approval rating before the war. His father's approval rating, according to Pew, did not fall as quickly to prewar levels in 1991.
Meanwhile, another independent pollster, John Zogby, has published the results of a recent survey putting Bush's approval rating at 45 percent and his disapproval at 54 percent.
Some Democrats think these numbers spell trouble for Bush. Former Clinton-Gore strategists James Carville, Bob Shrum and Stan Greenberg recently distributed a memo citing poll figures as proof that "voters are increasingly uneasy with Bush's handling of foreign affairs and uncertain of his administration."
Republicans, however, say they are not worried about a dip in Bush's approval rating. GOP pollster David Winston notes that Clinton's approval rating ranged between 55 percent and 58 percent in the months leading up to his re-election in 1996.
"Bush's job approval numbers have been extraordinarily high," Winston said. "In contrast, during Clinton's first four years as president, he spent a good portion of that time with more people disapproving than approving of the job he was doing. Bush has never reached that level of disapproval."
Earlier this year, Winston noted, the Republican National Committee's pollster, Matthew Dowd, sent a memo to GOP leaders, warning them to expect a dip in Bush's approval in the coming months. At the same time, Winston emphasized Bush's approval rating is nowhere near the 35 percent his father reached prior to the 1992 election.
One big difference between Bush and his father, according to Pew poll director Andy Kohut, is that the current president has become a "lightning rod for criticism" among Democrats. "The first George Bush did not annoy the Democrats the way this Bush does," Kohut said.
The Democrats' disdain for Bush means that in 2004 they'll turn out in strong numbers for a Democrat who criticizes Bush and Republicans will unfailingly support the president, Zogby predicts.
"The campaign will be between the partisan left and the partisan right," he said.
It was, of course, inevitable that Bush would rile Democrats by pursuing a strongly partisan agenda aimed at pleasing conservatives in the Republican party. He has chosen this strategy, according to his advisers, because he felt his father did not do enough to secure the GOP right wing.
When it comes to the economy, however, there is little Bush can actually do to avoid his father's bad experience. In late 1992, the economy was slowly growing out of a recession, but new jobs were not being created. Unemployment was stalled at 7.5 percent.
Former President Bush's defeat was attributed primarily to economic factors, combined with a widespread perception that he was not concerned enough about it.
Now, with more than a year to go before the 2004 election, job creation is again stalled, despite early signs of overall economic growth. Unemployment is currently hovering above 6 percent.
The president's advisers say they feel confident the economy will continue to grow over the next year, but the current lack of progress has made them anxious.
Nearly 60 percent of Americans polled by Pew between July 14 and Aug. 5 said the economy should be the most important priority for the president. Last January, a similar Pew poll found only 38 percent wanted the president to focus on the economy and 43 percent thought he ought to concentrate on the war on terrorism.
In campaign trips around the nation in recent weeks, the president has stressed that he is aware of the shift in thinking. He has repeatedly emphasized that the economy is indeed improving, even if many Americans don't perceive it to be.
Along with the economy, the ongoing war in Iraq remains a burdensome issue for the president. Unlike his father, who pulled American forces out of Iraq after the Persian Gulf War ended, the younger Bush must oversee the occupation and rebuilding of that country. As president, he is under pressure to answer for continuing American casualties in Iraq.
George H.W. Bush's popularity soared to 86 percent after the 1991 Gulf War; George W. Bush's popularity never exceeded 74 percent after the U.S. attack on Iraq, and it has since slid to the mid and low 50s.
Complaints about the president's conduct of the war in Iraq seem to be at the heart of the Democrats' negative view of Bush. A Pew poll found that opponents of the war "are taking an "anybody but Bush' attitude."
"The Democrats disliked Ronald Reagan," says DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe, "... but I can tell you the visceral dislike that they have for George Bush and his policies is something I have never seen before."
Anita Dunn, a Democratic campaign consultant, says the Democrats' animosity toward Bush originated with the Florida recount, which sealed the defeat of Democrat Al Gore. "They think it was a stolen election," Dunn said. "On top of that, they feel the president has cynically used national security issues to bolster his popularity."
Meanwhile, Democratic members of Congress are intensely angry about how Bush has dealt with the legislative branch. Norman Ornstein, political scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, notes that Bush has depended primarily on Republican majorities in the House and Senate to pass key legislation, seldom seeking Democratic support.
Democrats "think he's pursued his agenda in a relentlessly partisan way," Ornstein said, "and they are frustrated by his success as well."
Democratic animus toward Bush already is shaping presidential campaigns. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's candidacy for the Democratic nomination got off to a roaring start when he attacked Bush when other Democrats were afraid to speak out against him. Since then, other Democratic candidates have followed suit.
A week ago, Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., got a lot of media attention when he called the president a "miserable failure." He was so pleased by the reaction that he set up a new Web site, www.amiserablefailure.com
A few days later, even Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., a centrist who has supported Bush on the Iraq war, added his voice to the chorus of Democratic critics.
"The Bush administration has hoarded authority, bungled diplomacy, pushed allies to the margins, and divided rather than multiplied the strength we need to win the war on terror," Lieberman said.
Still, many Democratic voters seem to feel their party has not criticized Bush's policies enough. According to the Pew poll, only 31 percent of liberal Democrats think their party leaders have done a good job of advocating traditional Democratic issues.
With Democratic and Republican voters so polarized, analysts say, the presidential election likely will be decided by the turnout in each party and by independent voters.
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush thinks such a matchup will favor his brother - "that is as long as there's no independent candidate like Ross Perot," who took votes away from incumbent President Bush in 1992.
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