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Popularity Isn't Everything

From the June 16, 2005 Wall Street Journal: Perspective on the president's waning poll numbers.

12:00 AM, Jun 17, 2005 • By FRED BARNES
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TO UNDERSTAND WHY President Bush is relatively unpopular, one only has to look to the case of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California. After his election in November 2003, Schwarzenegger experienced a political honeymoon. He governed mostly by compromise and without pushing for sweeping change. And his popularity, measured by how people feel about his performance as governor, soared. That lasted for more than a year. Now Schwarzenegger has gotten serious. He's called for a special election to limit government spending permanently, curb teacher tenure, and take redistricting out of the hands of the legislature, which is controlled by Democrats. His popularity has plummeted.

Bush's popularity dropped in 2003 after the terrorist insurgency spread in Iraq. And except for a blip or two, it hasn't risen significantly since, even after his effective campaigning last fall, his reelection, and his dazzling inaugural address. Instead, his job performance rating in the Gallup Poll has dipped further--from 52 percent in January to 47 percent now.

Bush doesn't have the second-term blues, his administration hasn't lost its zeal, and he hasn't been troubled by scandal or the lack of a clear policy agenda. Nor is he suffering solely from his single-minded pursuit of Social Security reform. Like Schwarzenegger, the president has taken on a string of big issues--Iraq, a drastic foreign-policy overhaul, judges, plus Social Security--with predictable results. These are issues that generate political conflict. They upset settled practice, rile various institutions, stir strong opposition, and keep poll ratings low. For an activist president, lack of popularity is part of the package.

It's sad but true that our political system, assuming the economy is not in the tank, rewards presidents (and sometimes governors) for doing little. President Clinton benefited from this. His second term was largely unproductive. He balked at Social Security or Medicare reform. The war he fought in the Balkans consisted of bombs dropped from such high altitudes that American warplanes faced minimal risk. He refused to consider sending ground troops. The result: no American casualties. He did nothing to ease the stock-market bubble or deal with the looming recession. He got along with France.

Clinton's poll numbers remained at lofty levels and still do today. His job-performance rating averaged above 60 percent in his second term. During the week in which the House of Representatives voted to impeach him, his rating was 73 percent, the highest of his presidency. In hindsight, more than 60 percent of adult Americans still regard his presidency as a success. Asked recently if they favored a third term for Clinton, 43 percent of voters said yes. Only 27 percent said they wished Bush would serve another term.

President Reagan, while hardly as unproductive as Clinton in his second term, also profited a bit from the do-little syndrome. His approval rating in June 1985 was 58 percent, well above Bush's today. True, he achieved tax reform, but that was at a time when leading Democrats were on board. And he got along famously with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, all the while marching toward victory in the Cold War. But Reagan had quickly abandoned Social Security reform when the Senate frowned on it and declined to fight for serious spending cuts. Had he pursued those issues in his second term, his popularity would no doubt have sagged.

On Capitol Hill today, Democrats have scarcely disguised their lack of an agenda and unswerving opposition to Bush's. But neither has caused them political pain. The public wants Washington to take up Social Security and make the system solvent. But Democrats haven't suffered for refusing to do either or failing to offer an alternative to Bush's reform plan. Instead, they've gained in polls measuring party preference and gauging whom voters prefer to run Congress.

Bush this week attacked Democrats for adopting "the philosophy of the stop sign, the agenda of the roadblock, and our country and our children deserve better." He declared that political parties "that choose the path of obstruction will not gain the trust of the American people." In the long run, Bush may be right. In the short run, not necessarily.

In crass political terms, you might say Bush is "stuck" with an agenda and a far-reaching one at that. In Iraq, his goal is to create a stable democracy, something that has never before been established in the Arab world. And he has been unflinching in the face of more than 1,700 American military casualties and growing public unease. "Nationally, it hurts us every day a soldier dies," a Republican congressman who supports Bush said.

The president's bold foreign policy has caused trouble in unexpected places. Republican Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio cited anti-Americanism in Europe and elsewhere as one of his reasons for opposing the nomination of John Bolton as Bush's ambassador to the United Nations. Sen. Mel Martinez, (R., Fla.), whom the White House handpicked to run last fall, called last week for Bush to close down the prison for terrorists at Guantanamo in Cuba. And Bush's crusade for democracy as the top priority in foreign affairs has drawn few cheers from outside the ranks of political dissidents around the world.

Voters are notorious for despising political warfare. They made an exception in Clinton's case, absolving him from blame for the impeachment battle. But Bush's effort to change the ideological balance of the federal judiciary has created a furor. Reagan also tried to move the judiciary to the right, but Bush has gone about it in a more determined and sustained manner, provoking stronger opposition and a bigger struggle than Reagan did.

And then there's Social Security reform. Bush has bravely gone ahead on this issue in spite of qualms by Republicans in Congress and against a lesson offered in A Charge To Keep, his own 1999 autobiography, "It's hard to win votes for massive reform unless there is a crisis," he wrote. An addendum to that lesson might be: But if you go ahead anyway, you're sure to face massive opposition. Bush has.

For Schwarzenegger, there's an outlet for dealing with his proposals. He's chosen to put them up to a vote of Californians in a referendum this November. Bush's only outlet is Congress and that's chiefly for domestic issues. His best strategy may be to promote his policies more aggressively than ever, ignore falling poll numbers, and hope for the best. Crossing the finish line of his presidency with record low popularity may turn out to be a sign of substantive achievement and lasting reform.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard. His book on President Bush, Rebel-in-Chief, will be published by Crown Forum next year.