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End of the Bush Era?

by Ruy Teixeira

Last week, I concluded my discussion of the early polling results on the impact of Hurricane Katrina with:

As Harry Truman put it: “The buck stops here.” Bush may not personally subscribe to that view, but, in this case, I think the public’s going to insist.

Well, they’re insisting. Here are some results from the last week of public polling that clearly indicate serious erosion in Bush’s political standing from the Katrina disaster.

Bush’s approval ratings. Not one, but two, polls now have his overall approval below the 40 percent mark: Ipsos-AP (39 percent, with 59 percent disapproval) and Newsweek (38 percent, with 55 percent disapproval).

Other polls report approval ratings that are exactly at 40 percent or only slightly above: Pew Research Center (40 percent in two different polls, September 6-7 and September 8-12); Zogby (41 percent); CBS News, Time/SRBI and Washington Post/ABC News (all at 42 percent). (Note that in the ABC poll, the 57 percent who disapprove of Bush’s job performance includes 45 percent who strongly disapprove, an amazing finding.)

The Newsweek poll also reports the following approval ratings in specific areas: 35 percent, with 60 percent disapproval, on the economy; 36 percent, with 60 percent disapproval, on Iraq; and 28 percent, with 60 percent disapproval, on energy policy. (Do I detect a pattern?)

On problems caused by Hurricane Katrina, Bush gets a 37 percent rating, with 57 percent disapproval. This is similar to ratings in the CBS News poll (38 percent, down from 54 percent on August 30-31) and Pew poll (also 38 percent).

And even on terrorism and homeland security, Bush receives just a 46 percent rating, with 48 percent disapproval. That is, even in his area of greatest strength, the war on terror, Bush is now receiving net negative approval ratings.

Showing that this result is no fluke, the Time/SRBI poll gives him the same rating–46 percent approval/48 percent disapproval–on handling the war on terrorism. That poll also finds Bush with a net negative rating on “providing leadership in times of crisis” (48 percent approval/49 percent disapproval). Clearly, the public just doesn’t think of Bush in the same way it used to.

Bush’s character ratings. This shift in the perception of Bush is illustrated most vividly by recent results on Bush’s character. In the Newsweek poll, there is now a 49-47 split on whether Bush does or does not have “strong leadership qualities”, down from a 63-34 spread in late October of last year. In addition, there is now a 49-46 split on whether Bush is “intelligent and well-informed”, down from 59-37 last October, and a 46-51 split against Bush on whether can be trusted to “make the right decisions during an international crisis”, down from a 54-42 judgement in his favor last October. In addition, just 50 percent now say he is “honest and ethical”, 45 percent say he can be trusted to “make the right decisions during a domestic crisis” and 42 percent think he “cares about people like you”.

The poll also contains the following startling finding: The public is now much more likely to think that history will judge Bush a below average president (42 percent) than to think history will see him as above average (19 percent). Wow. Remember when Republicans were talking about putting Bush on Mount Rushmore? I don’t think that’s on anymore.

Other polls have similar findings on the sharp decline in perception of Bush’s character. In the CBS News poll, 48 percent now say Bush has “strong qualities of leadership”, compared to 49 percent who say he does not. That compares to a whopping 64-34 judgement in Bush’s favor a year ago. Similarly, in the WP/ABC poll, there is now a 50-50 split on whether Bush is a strong leader, down from 62-37 in his favor in May of 2004 and a 49-49 split on whether Bush can be trusted in a crisis, down from 60-39 in May, 2004. Finally, just 38 percent now say Bush does “understand the problems of people like you”, compared to 61 percent who say he doesn’t.

So: the public now has a negative view of Bush’s job performance overall and in every area, including handling the war on terror, and has lost faith in Bush’s special qualities as a leader. What’s left? Not much. The bond between Bush and the American people has clearly been broken, perhaps irrevocably. An administration that was once defined in the public eye with competence and patriotism is now associated with cronyism and incompetence of the worst sort.

That’s quite a change. In fact, it’s the end of an era. As E.J. Dionne succinctly put it in his September 13 column:

The Bush Era is over. The sooner politicians in both parties realize that, the better for them -- and the country.

Recent months, and especially the past two weeks, have brought home to a steadily growing majority of Americans the truth that President Bush's government doesn't work. His policies are failing, his approach to leadership is detached and self-indulgent, his way of politics has produced a divided, angry and dysfunctional public square. We dare not go on like this.....

The breaking of the Bush spell opens the way for leaders of both parties to declare their independence from the recent past. It gives forces outside the White House the opportunity to shape a more appropriate national agenda -- for competence and innovation in rebuilding the Katrina region and for new approaches to the problems created over the past 4 1/2 years.