- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 23, 2005

President Bush’s job-approval scores have taken a nosedive this year, but the reasons are not always clear and sometimes are contradictory.

Too often, there are generalizations about Mr. Bush’s poll numbers that the news media tend to distort, particularly about how he fares with his party’s base.

The latest Gallup Poll, one of the few surveys I look to for accurate poll numbers, put Mr. Bush’s job approval rating at 39 percent, a record low for his presidency. But polls also show he still is supported by 85 percent of Republicans, which suggests steep losses among swing Democrats, and deeper dissatisfaction among independents.

It has been reported repeatedly Mr. Bush has lost support among his political base, especially among conservatives, partly over Harriet Miers’ nomination to the Supreme Court. But, truth be told, support for Miss Miers is strongest among conservatives, according to last week’s Gallup Poll.

When Gallup asked a cross-section of 1,012 voters, “Would you like to see the Senate vote in favor of Miers serving on the Supreme Court?” a hefty 61 percent of conservatives said yes, while 21 percent said no and 18 percent had no opinion.

Gallup did find significant opposition to Miss Miers, but much of it came, not surprisingly, from moderates and liberals who fear her judicial views are too right wing for their tastes.

Moderates were divided 38 percent in favor to 42 percent against, with 20 percent saying they had no opinion yet. Among liberals, 49 percent want the Senate to reject her, while 28 percent do not. Notably, 23 percent had no opinion.

There’s a deeper message in these numbers only now beginning to emerge in the national debate over her qualifications: This will not be a fight among conservatives, but a battle between liberals who see her as another hard-core conservative and most Republican conservatives outside the Washington Beltway who believe she will tip the high court rightward.

In other areas of national debate, just as many Americans support as oppose the president on some pivotal issues.

Take Iraq, for instance, where a Pew poll this month, before Iraqis voted for a new constitution, found a 53 percent majority of Americans do not think things are going well there. About half now believe going into Iraq was wrong.

But, on whether to pull out or stay there until the Iraqi forces can maintain stability in their country, Americans favor staying by 48 percent to 47 percent.

There is one critical area in Mr. Bush’s dreary polls where a near majority of voters believe he has “made things better,” Pew found, and that is safeguarding America’s national security: 47 percent approve of the job he has done, while 30 percent think he has made things worse. Notably, reflecting the support Mr. Bush still draws from his base, 83 percent of Republicans say he has made America safer in the war on terrorism.

America, as the 2004 election showed, is politically polarized. That is a big factor in the falling Bush polls. “These attitudes are strongly shaped by partisanship,” representatives of the Pew Research Center poll say. “Few Democrats are willing to say the president has made anything better.”

There has been some erosion in Mr. Bush’s Republican support on certain issues, notably on federal spending and the budget deficit, even though the deficit declined $100 billion this year due to surging revenues from a growing economy.

I continue to believe Mr. Bush’s weak job-approval scores stem from persistent anxiety about the economy, higher gas prices that have hit middle- and lower-income people very hard and a volatile, bearish stock market that has devalued worker 401(k) savings plans, particularly tens of millions of Baby Boomers who are approaching retirement.

But a number of Mr. Bush’s problems are transitory. Gas prices in the last week fell, in some areas dramatically, and likely will fall further as more of the Gulf Coast’s oil-drilling rigs and refineries rev up again.

Wall Street analysts forecast a fourth-quarter rally, and the latest economic data suggest that may be in the cards. Home sales remain record high, with no bubble burst in sight; the core inflation rate is tame; the Fed reports that, despite Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the economy has held firm; and a job surge in the Gulf states as rebuilding gets under way will help boost year-end employment numbers.

As for Iraq, which will hold new elections in December, defense analysts predict U.S. troops will begin withdrawing early next year as Iraqi forces take over more of their country’s security.

When that happens, look for Mr. Bush’s polls to rebound strongly. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this presidency that $2-a-gallon gas, a bull market and success in Iraq cannot cure.

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


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