Monday | January 13, 2003
Downhill From Here?
The new Gallup Poll numbers have certainly gotten my attention, and judging from the chatter, I'm not the only one. But I must confess, shocking as it may seem, I don't have a very strong opinion on what they signify.
That Bush has broken below 60% approval for the first time since before 9/11 (echoing the Ipsos-Reid poll) would seem to suggest the economic and foreign policy bad news is finally catching up with him. And the sharp deterioration on the "would you vote for him" question -- 34% say they definitely would; 32% definitely won't; 32% could go either way -- seems to confirm it.
On that last question, I'd like to see comparable data for previous presidents before jumping to any conclusions. Still, I'm guessing that for a sitting president, especially one who is supposed to be America's War Hero, these are disappointing marks.
But before we break out the bubbly, let's note some of the counterfactual evidence:
* 58% approval is clearly less than 63% approval (last Gallup reading.) But that kind of change is still close to or within the MOE. We need more observations.
* Americans still see Bush as a "strong leader" 76%-23%. They believe he is willing to "make the hard decisions," 83%-15%. And he still "inspires confidence" 65%-34%. In fact, on just about all "character" issues, Bush continues to score extremely well or at least reasonably well -- even on the "cares about people like me" question, which has always been his weakest link.
* To me, this suggests Bush's "favorable/unfavorable" numbers remain higher than the approve/disapprove breakdown might suggest. (Has anyone seen any favorable/unfavorable numbers for this latest poll?) I've heard it said that favorable/unfavorable is a better long-range guide to voting intentions than approval/disapproval. Somebody tell me if I'm wrong.
* Bush's ratings on the economy remain split fairly evenly, not a lot of change since October. I'd want to see these go South in a bigger way before getting too excited (not to say that can't or won't happen.)
Enough of playing devil's advocate. It's seems clear there are cracks in Shrub's armor. On foreign affairs, approval is down 5 points since Oct; 10 points since July. Health care; down 6 points since July; taxes, down 15 points since March 2001 -- in the middle of the last big tax-cut porkout.
And while Shrub's own economic approval numbers are still mixed, feelings about the economy itself are rapidly falling into the deep doo-doo zone. 76% rate the economy as poor/fair, versus only 24% good/excellent.
(Compare to late summer 1992: 90% fair/poor; 10% good/excellent. )
If historical trends hold true, then sooner or later, and probably sooner, the doo-doo is going to start sticking to Shrub's shoes.
The Gallup results also show why the GOP minions are screetching so loudly about "class warfare" these days: By a 47-40 margin, those polled think Bush got where is today "mainly because of his family's wealth and influence." 56% think his policies primarily favor the rich; only 24% say favors the middle class.
Ordinarily, I don't think these last numbers would be worrisome for Team Bush. As the Reptiles never get tired of pointing out, most Americans aren't motivated by class resentments -- at least, not overtly. But the risk is that Shrub will contract the same dreaded "out-of-touch-itis" disease that did in his Father.
And there, too, the symptoms are troubling: 48% say Bush is out of touch, versus 50% who disagree. That put's him back roughly where he was before 9/11.
Nor does the economic plan look like it's going to be the magic cure. Only 42% favor his proposals; 37% oppose; 21% don't know enough to say. That's not exactly a groundswell. In any case, only 12% think the plan will make "a big difference" in their economic well being, one way or the other.
Finally, if the White House is counting on a Gulf War-type surge in support when it invades Iraq, then it better work extra hard to make sure the UN is on board: Only 23% would support an invasion regardless of what the UN inspectors find. Only 53% think it's worth going to war at all, 43% don't think it's worth it.
Bottom line: Bush is riding on a cushion of soft support. If he invades, I'm sure he'll still get the customary rally-around-the-president effect -- especially if he has UN support. But it will probably be much more ephemeral than post-9/11. And if something goes wrong -- if anything goes wrong -- he'll have no place to hide.
My conclusion: Bush is now vulnerable, but not yet really wounded. To exploit the cracks, Dems will need to try to chip away at his perceived positives: strong leader, trustworthy, etc. -- precisely the areas where they've been most reluctant to engage him up until now.
But the real question, as usual, is the voters' perception of Bush's economic leadership. How much longer will he be able to get away with blaming everything on Clinton/bin Ladin/O'Neill/Lindsey/the dog that ate his homework?
If a normal cyclical recovery kicks in this year, Bush's poll numbers should recover. If not . . . well, let's just say it could be a very interesting 12 months.
Now, if you want something to feel down about, take a look at the Gallup numbers on the Democratic race: Lieberman's on top with 19%, three points up on Kerry. Excuse me while I go throw up.