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Events in the world are going President Bush’s way. So is the U.S. economy. Yet his approval ratings are going down. Why?

The answer seems to be: (1) he’s not communicating well enough about the good things that are happening, (2) gasoline prices are soaring, dominating most people’s attitudes about the economy, and (3) he’s been preoccupied with Terri Schiavo and Social Security. [IMGCAP(1)]

Campaigning for his Social Security reforms is something Bush obviously has to do because they’re his top domestic priority. But his ability to get them passed may be hampered by his drooping polls.

Bush ought to be getting credit for a massive pro-U.S. shift in geopolitics. The area once called the “arc of crisis” — India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq — is now friendlier to the United States. Hostile nations Iran and Syria are increasingly isolated. And Bush’s push for democracy is gaining traction elsewhere in the Middle East.

Yet, the average of recent polls shows that Bush’s overall approval rating is 46 percent, down from 52 percent in February.

According to a Time magazine poll last weekend, Bush’s approval rating on the economy is down to 42 percent despite the fact the job growth has been strong, unemployment is down to 5.2 percent and the economy grew 3.8 percent in the final quarter of 2004.

The Conference Board reported Tuesday that its consumer confidence index dropped in March for the second month in a row, though it’s still considerably above its November level.

Polls indicate that the reason for the economic unease is gasoline prices, which jumped to $2.16 a gallon last week and are likely to surge even higher because of rising world oil prices.

The president has few levers of power to lower oil prices — opening the Strategic Petroleum Reserve wouldn’t help much — but voters may well expect him to do something about that rather than leaving his ranch to sign a bill to keep Terri Schiavo alive.

Polls make it abundantly clear that the public opposed Bush’s and Congress’s intervention in the Schiavo matter, although ordinary Americans’ judgment of the case may have been colored by the impression that she was definitely in a “persistent vegetative state.”

That may or may not have been the case, and it remains unclear whether an autopsy will settle the matter. Still, based on what the public understands about her condition, voters of all political stripes definitely did not want Bush and Congress to butt in.

It’s in foreign policy that the administration’s failure to communicate is most evident. A pro-U.S. sea change is occurring on Bush’s watch, yet a Fox News poll showed that by 47 percent to 40 percent, the public thinks world conditions are worse because of his policies.

When Bush took office, relations with India were improving, but the “arc of crisis” (a term coined by by Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski) was distinctly hostile.

Afghanistan used to be owned by al Qaeda and its ally, the Taliban, and radical Islam was gaining in Pakistan. Bush administration officials spent their first Christmas in office trying to avert nuclear war between India and Pakistan.

That’s all changed now. India and Pakistan certainly aren’t friends, but the threat of war is dramatically reduced. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration got Pakistan to side decisively with the United States, and the Taliban was ousted from power in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has had a dramatic free election and the United States is pressuring Pakistan’s president, Pervez Musharraf, to do the same. Instead of being seen as propping up corrupt and despotic regimes throughout the Mideast, the United States is increasingly being seen as a force for democratic change.

Surely Bush has not completely shed his image in the world media and European public opinion as a unilateralist “cowboy.” But it’s being reconsidered in light of elections in Iraq, Ukraine and the Palestinian authority and Bush’s efforts to push countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia toward democracy.

It’s too early to say that what’s happening in the Mideast is akin to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, but events in Lebanon and Ukraine suggest that, as in many Eastern European countries prior to 1989, populations are becoming less fearful of foreign oppressors and their local lackeys.

There’s no question that the United States still faces tough adversaries. Syria has not yet left Lebanon. Iran’s mullahs are tightening their grip on power, working on nuclear weapons and financing terrorism abroad. Osama bin Laden is still on the loose. North Korea has nuclear weapons and the United States can’t get China to bring it to heel. And Iraqi factions still can’t agree on a government.

But Syria is increasingly isolated even in the Arab world. Iran had hoped to divide the United States and Europe on the issue of its nuclear program, but for the moment, they’re operating together. So far at least, bin Laden has not been able to mount a new attack. The United States is working on China — using, among other arguments, the possibility that Japan, South Korea and even Taiwan could “go nuclear” — to restrain North Korea.

It would be a difficult PR task for the Bush White House to translate foreign policy or economic successes into traction on Social Security, but the effort could help boost his approval ratings. Presidents always have a better chance of getting their way when they’re popular.

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