Sabato's Crystal Ball

Bush’s Long Road Back

Changing Trends in Presidential Popularity

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics November 29th, 2005

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestmail

Urgent MEMO to THE PRESIDENT

(Or, if he is unavailable: any ol’ staffer, even the Assistant Gofer to the Under-Secretary to the Chief of Staff)

From: The Crystal Ball

Subject: How You Can Recover

Things are bad, Mr. President. Really bad. We can tell you already know that, since it is written all over your pained expression when you appear in public. Before the past few months, you haven’t had a time of Gallup Poll testing like most of your predecessors. Because of September 11th, you spent most of the first term in Gallup’s stratosphere (the 60’s and 70’s) and you never lost the half of the populace that voted for you twice. Now the delayed tumble has come with a vengeance, and even parts of your base have melted away, leaving you mired in the mid- to upper-30’s.

We’ll keep the painful numbers section short, Mr. President, because we realize that the press corps reminds you of your weakened position daily. Yet we have to show you one graph that says it all, a compilation of Gallup ratings comparing you to your four immediate two-term predecessors (Ike, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton) from Year One through Year Five:

The lesson is obvious, Mr. President: You’re a lot closer to Nixon than you are to Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton. And that’s not where you want to be. Nixon’s second term ended rather badly, as you will recall.

Of course, only some isolated voices on the far left are calling for your impeachment or resignation. But let’s think this through. You’ve got 38 months still to serve as President–that’s four months longer than the entire John F. Kennedy Presidency, as The Hotline recently noted. You don’t want to endure years in the White House with an unfriendly public. It isn’t good for you, and it’s not good for the country either. As you’ve reminded us many times, we’re at war with a group of truly evil terrorists who would gladly see us all dead. They are cheering your bad fortune and hoping you won’t recover and can’t lead.

You need to surprise them. And to do that, you need to surprise your critics by proving more flexible and inclusive than we’ve ever seen you. Are you up to the task? If you aren’t, history will almost certainly judge you a failed President. So the stakes are as high as they get for a Chief Executive.

The good news is that you’ve got enough time and ocean left to turn your ship of state around, plus you have the benefit of still-friendly GOP majorities in both houses of Congress for at least another year. The bad news–there’s always plenty of that–is that you need to act relatively quickly so that the big story of the New Year is your comeback and not your political demise. When people start watching television again after the holidays, you need to dominate January day after day, and not limit your effort to the State of the Union address. Oh, and the bad news also includes some wrenching policy decisions that you won’t want to make. Hey, the Crystal Ball didn’t promise you a Rose Garden, beyond the gorgeous one right outside your office! Here’s the plan:

  1. Accept Political Reality on Iraq. The American people have turned against your war, and they’re not turning back. Congressman John Murtha’s revolt is just the latest sign. Iraq is an argument you can no longer win. Yes, the December elections there may give you a bit of breathing space, but your maneuvering room is permanently limited. Whether you like it or not, you will have to withdraw a substantial portion of our troops before the midterm elections in November 2006 or risk a Democratic takeover of Congress. (Think you’re miserable now? Just wait until the two dozen legislative investigations start under Democratic management!) You can keep some American troops in Iraqi fallback positions and in friendly countries in the general neighborhood. That’s it, though, unless you want to see your Presidency held hostage to a foreign adventure the public opposes. (See your fellow Texan, Johnson, Lyndon Baines. And maybe Carter, Jimmy for good measure.)
  2. Start Aggressive Credit-Taking for a Good Economy. To judge by the polls, the American public thinks we’re on the verge of another Great Depression. High gas prices and home heating oil, the Katrina bungling, mass layoffs at GM and the sour mood caused by Iraq explain some of this. In fact, though, we’re in a sweet spot—the economy’s not too cold and not too hot, unemployment and inflation are low, growth is solid despite the hurricanes. Have you noticed that you’re getting no credit? You and your staff are partly to blame. Please revisit the Reagan and Clinton years. Numbers 40 and 42 held a TV announcement or gave a speech to boast about every new positive statistic, and over time, the message broke through an unfriendly press to affect public opinion in the President’s favor. You act as though Americans will notice good times on their own and give you the kudos. Get real. Start a debate with your adversaries about the economy. Unlike Iraq, it’s an argument you can win.
  3. Retool, retool, retool. Your Social Security reform is dead. Your immigration reform is dead. Your tax proposals are comatose, and the undertaker is on standby. Here’s the unpleasant truth: The creative period of your Presidency is over. You’re not going to remake anything much in the remaining years of your term because the public is unwilling and the treasury is empty. You need to move from policy innovation to consolidation. Drop the lead weights of proposals that will never see the light of day, don’t come up with any more (no Mars missions), and focus your Presidency on the two great tasks for which history could remember you: fighting terrorism and rebuilding the Gulf Coast. Leading and managing those two great causes can productively fill your days and give your administration the ennobling purpose that has left it. And those two goals are enough for any ambitious President. Especially for a conservative President, less is more!
  4. Re-Staff, Re-Staff, Re-Staff. We’re sorry if no one has told you, Mr. President, but parts of your staff are burned out, controversial, and increasingly mired in scandal(s). Every President–just like every Major League team owner–needs to refresh his roster from time to time with new, able people. You are overdue for this, and it is the easiest of all the tasks we’ve mentioned.
  5. Admit One Big Error and Correct It. We’ve put this last, in case you grow angry at the suggestion and stop reading. (We’ve heard you’ve got a heck of a temper!) Everyone knows you are stubborn and loath to acknowledge any mistake–in part because your many enemies would never let you forget it. We know you’ll never admit any error on Iraq, and there’s no chance you’ll change course on the tax cuts. So let’s choose something that even your strongest supporters in Congress deeply regret: the Medicare drug benefit. Do you know how many Republican Senators and Representatives have said privately that it is the worst, most regrettable vote of their careers? The drug benefit will add trillions to the national debt over time; because of its complexity, it is overwhelmingly disliked by the very seniors it is designed to help; and like most government programs, it is guaranteed to become massively more unwieldy and costly in the future, as new provisions and baubles are added on. Eliminate it, or at the very least, cut it way back by limiting it to the poor. Your gigantic, additional Medicare entitlement underlines the Bush Administration’s reckless overspending. The ocean of red ink you have created will be an enormous black, er, red mark on your legacy in the history books. Why not do something about it while you still can? All at once, you can please your party, make better policy, and change your image by confessing a big goof. People will be amazed at your display of humility. Sometimes, the best politics is counterintuitive.

Mr. President, you know instinctively that the times are too partisan, and you have burned too many bridges, to regain the backing of Democratic voters. Count on 90-95 percent of them being opposed to you all the way to January 20, 2009. However, you can recapture many of the Republicans and Independents who have left your side. (Right now, you’re losing about 15 percent of GOP voters and close to two-thirds of the Independents.)

Realistically, while you probably will never again see a 60 percent approval rating in the Gallup Poll, you can slowly climb back over 50 percent. It’s going to take a lot of hard work and day-to-day incremental progress. But the only alternative to this kind of Purgatory is a three-year-long Hades of deep unpopularity and the inability to lead. It’s a White House prison term that neither you nor the country wants to see. Good luck!