President Bush is unbowed as he travels the country defending his domestic and foreign policies while his poll numbers sink to a level from which incumbent presidents historically have never recovered. But he knows the political ground is shifting under his feet, and even Bush's staunchest supporters fear that his re-election is in serious jeopardy.
For the first time in his presidency, a solid majority of Americans disapprove of Bush's job performance on the two overarching issues of this election year - the war in Iraq, which is going badly, and the economy, which is rebounding. The most recent polls found Bush's approval rating in the mid 40s. Only 34 percent of voters approve of his handling of the economy, an all-time low, even though employment is on the rise and most indicators show solid economic growth. Perhaps even more troubling to Bush campaign strategists, a clear majority of Americans for the first time disapprove of the president's handling of the war in Iraq.
Frank Newport of the Gallup Organization told the Washington Post that, in Gallup's surveys, no president since World War II has won re-election after falling below a 50 percent approval rating at this point in an election year. However, Newport added the volatility of events in Iraq and the potential for another terrorist strike on U.S. soil could break this historical pattern.
It has been clear for some time that events - some set in motion by the president and the delusional neoconservatives who commandeered foreign policy in his administration - are likely to have a greater impact on this presidential election than anything the candidates do or say. And so far, events are not breaking Bush's way. That, of course, could change and Bush could regain lost ground in the final stretch of the election campaign.
In his private moments, Bush has to wonder what went wrong, why the strong political support he commanded after 9/11 appears to be collapsing around him. John Kerry has barely laid a glove on him. Even as Bush's support slips away, Kerry only in recent days has begun to open up a slight lead over the incumbent. Bush's political problems are of his own making. The president is paying a high political price for his administration's arrogance and incompetence in foreign policy and for its ideological approach to domestic issues.
The surprising thing to me is that Bush's approval ratings are not even lower. Except for his leadership after the 9/11 attacks, I cannot think of any major issues, at home or abroad, where Bush has put the national interest ahead of his own political agenda.
The administration got about everything wrong in its planning, if you can call it that, for the U.S. occupation of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. Now it's an ugly mess, and no one in the administration seems to have the foggiest notion of how we can extricate ourselves from this quagmire without sounding retreat and leaving a disaster behind.
Meanwhile, the horrific images of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib have sickened most Americans, further inflamed anti-American passions in the Muslim world and heightened the danger U.S. troops face in Iraq, where murderous insurgents are inflicting heavy casualties on our forces. Osama bin Laden could not have scripted it better.
Bush counts among his biggest domestic achievements the No Child Left Behind education reform law and his Medicare prescription drug plan. Both are seriously flawed, and neither has yet found a solid constituency. And on the campaign trail, he credits his huge tax cuts, most of which went to the wealthiest Americans, for the country's economic turnaround. He doesn't mention that the tax cuts and war spending have left us with huge budget deficits as far as the eye can see, or that even Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who provided early political cover for the president's tax cuts, is now warning that this mountain of debt threatens the country's economic stability not too far down the road.
Even though his strong post-9/11 leadership drove his approval ratings into the 80 to 90 percent range early on, he squandered his political advantage on national security by invading Iraq - a war of his choice - before finishing the job of putting the Taliban and al-Qaida out of business in Afghanistan.
In the name of fighting terrorism, the Bush administration has ignored the Geneva Conventions, which govern wartime behavior, and bent international law to suit its own purposes. And on the home front, it has shown a chilling disregard for civil liberties. It has made a mockery of due process by claiming the right to indefinitely detain even American citizens as "enemy combatants" without giving them access to a lawyer.
No wonder Americans are becoming disaffected with this president. Bush should ask himself the same simple questions a growing number of voters are beginning to ask themselves: How many big things has he gotten right since becoming president?
- Philip Gailey's e-mail address is Gailey@sptimes.com