The writer Salman Rushdie said, “Reality is a question of perspective.” Never were those words truer than in the realm of politics and public opinion polls now. With Democratic presidential candidates and political pundits salivating over President Bush’s slipping job approval numbers, this might be a good time to put the numbers into some perspective. So, for my first Roll Call column, here’s a reality check. [IMGCAP(1)]
Not surprisingly, right after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Bush’s job approval ratings spiked to historic levels. Many media surveys showed that 90 percent or more of Americans approved of the job he was doing as president. It was a remarkable response; and, even more remarkably, Bush was able to sustain an 80 percent job approval for another six months despite a sagging economy and war in Afghanistan. There is no question that there was a fundamental, positive shift in how people viewed this president during that difficult time.
But, to paraphrase Newton, what goes up eventually comes down. And today, almost two years later, Bush’s poll numbers have moved to a more realistic level. This is exactly what Bush’s pollster, Matthew Dowd, predicted in a memo written at the height of Bush’s job approval. In the past two weeks, a crescendo of voices on cable and at Democratic presidential events have concluded that because his job approval has “dramatically dropped” to the mid-50s, Bush is in deep trouble. Not so fast.
While it’s true that the Democracy Corps’ (James Carville and crew) recent survey had Bush’s job approval-disapproval at 55 percent-41 percent and CBS put it at 55 percent-37 percent, what is being lost in the rush to predict the premature end of the Bush presidency is a sense of perspective. Part of this overreaction is understandable. When a politician sustains the kind of popularity that Bush has for such an extended period of time, a job approval in the 50s — which was once a level most politicians yearned for — is portrayed as a sign of serious problems. It is also important to remember that Bush has been able to maintain what is a strongly positive job approval in a period when voters are increasingly concerned about the economy and complications in Iraq.
Perhaps the easiest way to get some perspective on Bush’s job approval, however, is to compare his numbers to President Bill Clinton’s during roughly the same time frame — the first 32 months in office. Using Bush’s job approval numbers in major media surveys for just August, we find he averaged a 56 percent approve/38 percent disapprove. Contrast those numbers with Clinton’s in August 1995, his third year in office, and we see Clinton’s job approval average was 46 percent approve/43 percent disapprove.
Now for some context. Despite being 10 points lower than where Bush is today, 14 months after getting his 46 percent job approval, Clinton went on to crush former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) in the 1996 presidential election. Even more interesting, Bush’s 56 percent average job approval is exactly the same as Clinton’s in the last four months of the 1996 campaign. From August to November 1996, Clinton’s monthly average ranged between 54 percent and 58 percent. Simply put, if Bush’s job approval remains at this point or even slightly lower, he will face the eventual Democratic nominee at roughly the same political strength as Clinton when he easily beat Dole.
Here’s another way to look at the numbers. During the entire 32 months of Bush’s presidency, in all the public media polls (at least that I have been able to find), he has been at 55 percent or higher in 92 percent of the surveys. In contrast, during the same time frame, Clinton was at those levels in only 13 percent of the surveys. In fact, more people disapproved of Clinton’s performance on the job than approved in slightly more than one out of every three polls (35 percent), and this was pre-Monica. Comparing the two men’s numbers at the same point in their terms, there is simply no contest. Bush clearly has far greater support from the American public.
It’s easy to forget that Clinton didn’t effectively stay above 50 percent job approval until the beginning of February 1996. For surveys in January 1996, the average of media polls for Clinton was a job approval-disapproval of 49 percent-43 percent.
A second set of numbers has also been getting a lot of attention lately — the re-elect question. In Newsweek’s Aug. 21 survey, it found that 44 percent wanted to see Bush re-elected while 49 percent did not. Democrat talking heads have rushed to crow that these numbers prove Bush is highly vulnerable. They’ve apparently forgotten that in November 1995, Clinton’s re-elect was 36 percent for/51 percent against. Bush still runs 8 points ahead of Clinton in this question of dubious predictive value.
So, before Washington’s chattering class buys the latest conventional wisdom that George Bush’s presidency is teetering on the brink of disaster, it should take a harder look at the numbers, which tell a far different story. Through the first 32 months of their respective terms, Bush’s job approval is significantly better than Clinton’s and is on par with Clinton’s when he was easily re-elected.
In the next few months, numbers will vary from survey to survey. Bush will go up and down. More important than any one number, however, is whether more people approve than disapprove of the job a president is doing. The key is to put the numbers in perspective — not in politically expedient isolation.