- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 15, 2003

President Bush’s job approval numbers are climbing again, reflecting the U.S. economy’s welcome recovery from a three-year slump.

Last week’s Gallup Poll showed that 55 percent of Americans approved of the overall job the president was doing — an impressive 5-point jump since Gallup’s last survey between Sept. 19 and Sept. 21.

Mr. Bush’s numbers even got a little better over the weekend when the Gallup organization went back into the field to see if its early numbers were a fluke or part of an apparent trend. Their finding: Mr. Bush’s 55 percent actually upticked by a point over this period — pushing his overall approval number to 56 percent.

“It seems the downward spiral that the pundits said was under way has stopped. The numbers are settling down, and we’re back up to where we were in February. It’s as if the last eight months did not happen,” Mr. Bush’s campaign pollster, Matthew Dowd, told me this week.

“All the Democrats who were saying how angry Democratic voters were and here we are right back where we were earlier this year,” Mr. Dowd said.

These are impressive numbers, especially after the pounding Mr. Bush has taken from his Democratic opponents on the economy and Iraq. But there are two important findings in the Gallup Poll figures that bear further scrutiny.

The first is that Mr. Bush’s sharp rise in the polls “comes mainly from Democrats, who remain highly critical of the president, but show a 12-point improvement in rates from mid-September (16 percent) to now (28 percent). Republicans and independents’ ratings have held steady during that time,” the Gallup Poll said in a report on its findings.

It may very well be that the across-the-board erosion Democrats suffered in the California recall election — among labor unions, minorities and other Democratic voters — was not the result of a general anger with incumbents, as Democratic Party officials maintained last week.

Democrats, especially younger Democrats, are becoming much more independent-minded in their political thinking on tax cuts, the war in Iraq and the economy in general. The increasingly favorable shift toward Mr. Bush among Democratic voters has become a source of deep concern over at the Democratic National Committee, according to my sources.

The second point to be made is that job approval ratings in the mid-50s are more than enough to win re-election to a second term.

President Clinton won his second term in 1996 (the first Democrat to do so since Franklin D. Roosevelt) when his job-approval score was at 54 percent — 2 points below where Mr. Bush is now. And Mr. Clinton did not have the higher personal approval scores on character, integrity and trustworthiness that Mr. Bush enjoys.

But what about Mr. Bush’s lower approval scores on the economy — still in the low 40s? Well, timing is everything in presidential re-election campaigns, and here time is on Mr. Bush’s side. The economy was growing at around 3 percent in the first half of the year, and economists estimate it is now expanding at something closer to 4 percent or more. That should be enough to make Mr. Bush a powerful candidate, barring any catastrophe in Iraq, in 2004.

President Reagan’s public approval score on the economy at this same point in 1983 was a dismal 37 percent when he was preparing for his 1984 re-election campaign. But the economy was clearly in a recovery at that time and he went on to win in a 49-state landslide.

Of course, it helped that Mr. Reagan’s opponent, Water Mondale, called for higher taxes, just as Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt are doing now.

It takes awhile for changes in the economy to become fully accepted by the body politic. The economy has been picking up gradually for the past several months, but unemployment and manufacturing jobs in particular have remained stubborn lagging indicators.

Yet in the past month or more we have had some very postive reports on the economy: Jobless benefit claims have been declining for weeks. The last unemployment numbers showed a nearly 70,000 net gain in new jobs. Corporate earnings — the prerequisite to job creation — are rising. Incomes, retail sales and consumer spending are all up, largely due to the president’s tax cuts and refundable child tax credits.

And the continuing bull market on Wall Street has pushed stock prices higher, rebuilding the “wealth effect” among worker/stockholders who are seeing their 401(k) plans, IRA accounts and pension funds regaining their lost values.

But, interestingly, Mr. Bush’s chief pollster does not see his polls climbing much higher than they are now.

“This is a good place to be for a president going into a re-election year,” Mr. Dowd said. “I expect the job approval numbers in the low-to-mid 50s to be operative for a long time. It’s really hard in an election year to have numbers much higher than this.”

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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