- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The sharp decline in President Bush’s approval polls sent tremors through Republican ranks last week as officials searched for reasons to explain the shift in the public’s mood.

The USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll of 1,001 adults saw Mr. Bush’s job approval falling from 52 to 45 percent, the lowest rating of his presidency. Gallup, a very respected pollsters, said the decline was strongest among men, self-identified conservatives and churchgoers. But what explains it?

Certainly, the polls will rise and fall in any presidency, as the country’s mood changes with the ebb and flow of foreign and domestic events. Since his re-election, Mr. Bush generally has stayed in the 52-53 percent range as the economy showed continuing strength and the Iraq situation improved after successful elections, spawning a new birth of democratic movements across the Middle East.

Mr. Bush’s agenda was moving ahead with unusual speed in Congress, with action on several top-priority bills, including lawsuit reform and drilling for oil in the Arctic. The deficit-cutting budget bills should be finished in April.

The battle over Social Security reform continued, though polls showed Mr. Bush winning the argument over the program’s long-term insolvency as even some Democrats begin grudgingly conceding that, well, yes, it needs fixing.

But a closer reading of the poll’s results showed the drop in Mr. Bush’s job approval numbers may have involved a confluence of other, largely economic events.

Surprisingly, despite an economy growing 4 percent last year, 59 percent told Gallup pollsters they saw the economy getting worse. Only 32 percent called it was good or excellent.

Yet job creation has increased over the past three months, and there were no major new economic forecasts to suggest the economy was headed downward, except for the nervous nellies on Wall Street who see a recession behind every statistic.

What may have shoved Mr. Bush’s numbers downward was the Wall Street action where the Dow, nearly 10,900 earlier this year and looking for a while as if it could hit 11,000 again, was tumbling. A depressing 400-point drop over the previous weeks shook ordinary investors who saw their 401(k)s and other retirement plans shrinking fast.

That big a drop in the markets affects many more people now as the investor class has grown exponentially across most income groups. The people who are the most vulnerable are the millions of Baby Boomers retiring near the end of this decade, and any reduction now in their stock and bond investments can wreak havoc with their portfolios and retirement plans.

Another reason for the gloom that undercut Mr. Bush’s numbers had to be the credit card-crunching rise in gas prices, now more than $2 a gallon for regular in most of the country. These prices squeeze cash-strapped consumers and businesses alike, and Gallup found increased complaints about gas costs tied with jobs and wages as chief economic concerns.

Oil prices were falling this week, and the Saudi government and other OPEC countries were boosting production to bring them down, but we will still see higher gas prices a while yet.

Other factors at work on Mr. Bush’s numbers were beyond his control. The emotional and deeply moral debate over the decision by Terri Schiavo’s husband to remove her feeding tube — and the decision by the Republican Congress and Mr. Bush to intervene — could be a factor, but how much is uncertain.

In the end, the intervention was very limited and merely gave her anguished parents the right to bring the issue into federal court. This was not so much partisan as an act of deep compassion for a woman clinging to life. House Democrats were split right down the middle on this one, and even staunch pro-lifers like former Judge Robert Bork could not say how he would have voted if he had won a seat on the Supreme Court.

But I doubt this was much of factor in Mr. Bush’s falling polls. He acted out of simple decency to give Mrs. Schiavo’s parents another chance in a higher court to restore the feeding tube.

In the end, one week’s poll doesn’t really tell us much if anything about the direction of Mr. Bush’s second term. Right now, though, the country seems in a sour mood about many different things, but no one thing in particular.

Still, the U.S. economy is growing nicely, the administration is currently scandal-free, and Iraq is putting together a new government and killing more of the terrorists. Mr. Bush’s polls should be better than they are.

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

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