A more accurate word for President Bush's political condition is "normal." Bush has slumped in his third year in office just as most recent presidents have. A slump is the rule, not the exception. For President Bush, the glow from enacting his major initiatives (tax cuts, education reform) has faded. The economy is soft. His foreign policy, especially in postwar Iraq, has become controversial. And complaints about his presidency from Capitol Hill, even from Republicans, have grown.
Still, there's far more reason than not to expect him to recover and win re-election, perhaps easily. His slump, assuming it's hit bottom, has been milder than the slumps other presidents faced and his prospects are brighter. President Bush is lucky on the economy. His recession came early, giving the economy time to revive before his re-election campaign in 2004. And his foreign policy crisis is hardly as threatening as Vietnam was for Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. The economy is almost certain to look better in 2004 than today and chances are Iraq will too.
THE MEDIA'S PROBLEM in assessing a president's future is invariably seeing the future as a straight-line projection of the present. It rarely works out that way. When President Ronald Reagan moved into his third year in 1983, Lou Cannon of the Washington Post referred to his "embattled presidency." His administration's "opportunities," Cannon wrote, "were severely limited by the failure of the economy to respond to Reagan's remedies." Even conservatives were grousing. President Reagan's approval rating fell to 47 percent, but in 1984 he won in a landslide. The same was true for President Nixon, whose approval sank to 49 percent in 1971, only to be followed by an overwhelming re-election victory a year later.
President Clinton was driven into retreat by the Republican blowout in the 1994 midterm election. There were doubts about his "relevance" as a leader. In August 1996 his job rating was 44 percent and he dropped behind Bob Dole (48 percent to 42 percent) and Colin Powell (47 percent to 37 percent). Yet Clinton won re-election comfortably the next year.
It's true that two presidents, Johnson and Carter, failed to pull themselves out of their third-year slumps. Johnson was bedeviled by the national anxiety over the war in Vietnam. President Carter was beset by a stagnant economy and sky-high inflation and appeared helpless to solve the Iranian hostage crisis.
President Bush's decline doesn't match that of his father, George H.W. Bush. The elder Bush's case was anomalous. After winning the Iraq war, he was riding high well into his third year, 1991. But, again, the future turned out unexpectedly. Though the economy was growing, President George H.W. Bush slumped in his fourth year and lost.
So President Bush's situation is different from his father's, and there's not much chance he will suffer the fate of Johnson or Mr. Carter either. Iraq is not Vietnam. In 1967, 10,000 Americans were killed in Vietnam and victory was nowhere in sight. Johnson abandoned his re-election bid in March 1968. America's enemy then was a powerful military of well over one million troops--not only Viet Cong guerrillas but a North Vietnamese army backed by the Soviet Union.
Compared to that force, the enemy in Iraq is minuscule: a few thousand Baathist diehards allied with Islamic terrorists. They are capable of nothing more than hit-and-run attacks. Roughly 90 percent of Iraq is reasonably secure and stable, again unlike Vietnam. And though press reports stress the negative, only 70 Americans have been killed in the past four months.
Now the evidence of progress in Iraq is becoming inescapable. An American reporter who returned to Baghdad last week after three months away was amazed at how bustling and active the city has become. Every person I've talked to who's visited Iraq recently insists things are getting better. And President Bush is committed to staying the course.
It's possible Iraq could deteriorate. Administration officials are more confident about an improved economy than they are about a safe and secure Iraq. But given the forces at play, particularly a growing contingent of American-trained Iraqi police, soldiers and government officials, continued progress in Iraq is likely. And Bush won't face LBJ's plight. In Iraq, victory is in sight.
President Bush's recession, handed to him by the outgoing Clinton administration, ended in late 2001. The recovery has been slow in coming and often has seemed non-existent. But now it's arrived for sure. Economists, Wall Street, the businessmen--there's near-universal agreement among them that the economy will roar in the closing months of this year and continue growing swiftly in 2004.
At some point, probably late this year or early next, the economy should begin producing jobs. It's inevitable. Productivity gains require faster growth than before for job creation to kick in, but 4 percent to 6 percent growth would suffice. The three million jobs lost since Bush took office won't be entirely offset, but the recovery should take a major bite. The last step is for the public to perceive a revived economy. The public's view is a lagging indicator, but it doesn't lag forever. For the purpose of his re-election, President Bush has until mid-2004 for the public to sense the improved trajectory of the economy. That's plenty of time.
President Bush has two other factors working for him. One is the unpopularity of the Democrats. Mark Penn, the pollster for Bill Clinton, found recently that the percentage of Americans who identify with the Democratic party (32 percent) is the lowest since before the New Deal, 70 years ago. The other is President Bush's current condition. If he's even with Democratic rivals now, with recovery just beginning and a spate of bad news from Iraq, imagine where he'll be when the recovery sets in and Iraq quiets down. When President Bush gets there, the media will have a new word for him: "favorite."
Fred Barnes is the executive editor of The Weekly Standard.