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A Failed Presidency

by Ruy Teixeira

Is Bush’s State of the Union (SOTU) address on Tuesday likely to boost his approval ratings and his political fortunes? Not likely. As a very useful Gallup report on post-SOTU polling points out, presidents do not usually get a significant ratings boost from SOTU speeches. In fact, in 12 out of 24 cases going back to 1978, presidential approval actually went down, compared to 10 cases where it went up and 2 cases where it remained the same. Moreover, in only four cases did presidential approval go up four points or more, which would indicate a statistically significant bump.

As for Bush’s specific record, in three out four SOTU addresses, his post-speech rating changed insignificantly three times (twice negatively and once positively) and in the fourth case (2005) went up six points–a change the report argues was probably attributable to the holding of the first post-Saddam Iraqi elections right after the speech–and then quickly went back down to its pre-speech level.

These data are from post-speech polls among the general public. Gallup rightly warns against putting too much stock in post-speech reaction polls conducted among debate-watchers, since debate-watchers tend to be heavily skewed by partisanship toward the president’s party. For example, last year’s debate-watchers were 52 percent Republican, 25 percent Democratic and 22 percent independent. With audiences like that, a president is pretty much guaranteed to get a friendly reception, but it doesn’t really mean anything.

So Bush is likely to be stuck with what he’s got. And what he’s got is pretty darn awful. As a spate of extensive pre-SOTU polls have made very clear, his presidency is on life support. In fact, the words “a failed presidency” would not be unwarranted, at this point, in describing what Bush has managed to attain. But don’t just take my word for it–listen to what the public has to say.

1. In the latest Gallup poll, a majority (52 percent) now describe the Bush presidency as a failure. Contrast this to ratings of Clinton, who, from September, 1996 onward, never had less than 64 percent describing his presidency as a success and was usually at 70 percent and above.

2. Remember that classic question of presidential debates, are you better off today than you were [insert number] years ago? In the same poll, Gallup asked whether “things have gotten better or worse in this country in the last five years”. By 64-28, the public said that things have gotten worse, including a 70-21 margin among independents.

3. In the new LA Times poll, by 2:1 (62-31), the public says that the country is not better off because of Bush’s policies and needs to move in a new direction (67-25 among independents and 71-21 among moderates).

4. In the same poll, by 60-32, the public says Bush has not fulfilled his promise to “restore honesty and integrity to the White House”.

5. In the new Washington Post/ABC News poll, the Democrats in Congress are favored by 16 points (51-35) over Bush on the direction for the country, Democrats are favored over Republicans by 16 points (51-35) on having better ideas and Democrats are favored over the Republicans by 14 points (51-37) on which party can best handle the main problems facing the nation in the next few years. The latter measure is the first time since 1992 that the Democrats have broken 50 percent on this measure and had a lead over the Republicans of this magnitude.

6. In the same poll, an astonishing 50 percent–half the country!–strongly disapproves of Bush’s handling of the situation in Iraq.

7. In the new CBS News/New York Times poll, just 22 percent believe the economy will be better by end of Bush’s second term in office than it is today, only 11 percent believe seniors will be paying less for prescription drugs than they are today, a mere 9 percent believe the health care system will be better and an incurably optimistic 6 percent think the deficit will be smaller than it is today.

And there’s more–oh so much more!–but I just don’t have time to rehearse it all here. I ‘ll just leave you with one question. Can you say “failed presidency”? I think you can!