Iraq Affects Everything
Explaining Bush's poll numbers.


Byron York

The economy is humming along at its best pace in years. Economic growth has looked good for quite a while, and now the much-decried “jobless recovery” has become a job-creating recovery. So what do Americans think about it? Well, more and more of them are unhappy with the way George W. Bush is handling the economy.

In a new Gallup poll, taken last weekend, 56 percent of those surveyed say they disapprove of the president’s economic performance. Forty-one percent say they approve, and three percent have no opinion. The 56-percent disapproval figure is the highest-ever in Gallup polls taken during the Bush presidency.

It doesn’t make much sense. Disapproval of Bush’s handling of the economy was significantly lower when economic problems were more pronounced. Last December, for example, before the jobs turnaround gathered speed, 49 percent disapproved of Bush’s handling of the economy, while 48 percent approved. In March 2003, when jobs were still being lost, 42 percent disapproved of Bush’s economic stewardship, while 52 percent approved. And back in June 2002, just 33 percent disapproved of the president’s performance, versus 63 percent who approved.

There’s a trend here: The more the economy improves, the more people say they don’t like Bush’s handling of the economy. If the trend continues, and if the robust recovery gathers even more strength, there could come a time when there is a combination of strong economic growth, low unemployment, and virtually universal disapproval of the president’s handling of the economy.

What’s going on? There is a clue perhaps, in the comparison of opinion about the president’s economic performance with opinion about his handling of the war in Iraq.

The public has about the same view of both. In the latest Gallup poll, the 56 – 41 disapproval/approval split on the economy is virtually identical to the 58 – 41 disapproval/approval split on the issue of Bush and Iraq. In other words, the public has the same view of the president’s handling of the economy, which is going well, as it has of Iraq, which is going badly.

People at the Bush campaign believe the two are related. “The news about Iraq over the last month or two affects ‘right direction’ and ’satisfaction,’” says Matthew Dowd, the Bush campaign’s chief strategist, referring to two general indices of voter happiness or unhappiness about the state of the country. “Then people feel bad about generally everything. If they feel bad about the situation in Iraq, then they feel bad about everything, and that affects their view on the economy.”

Therefore, it’s unlikely that voter opinion about Bush’s handling of the economy will improve until the news from Iraq improves. If that’s correct–and it’s as good a theory as any–the polling numbers confirm just how much George W. Bush has bet his presidency on Iraq.

If things get better there, he’ll be fine. If they don’t–well, the Bush campaign expects things to get better.

The same thinking explains the president’s recent slip into negative territory on the overall job approval front. Fifty-one percent of those surveyed by Gallup disapprove of the president’s overall job performance, versus 46 percent who approve.

What the theory does not explain, of course, is why, with all that voter unhappiness, Bush still leads Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.) in the presidential horserace poll. Gallup shows the president leading Kerry 48 to 47 among likely voters in a two-man race, and 47 to 45 in a race that includes Ralph Nader. Both leads are statistically insignificant. But the fact that Bush is leading at all is politically significant.

How to explain it? “I think it’s because Kerry as an alternative is becoming less and less acceptable,” says Dowd. “In troubled times, people want someone who’s resolute, who is firm, who knows where he wants to go. I think what has happened to Sen. Kerry is that the public has said, ‘Does this guy have a firm set of convictions? Does he really know where he wants to go?’ In this environment, having that weakness–which I think the public has discovered–that’s a problem.”

Kerry’s strategists appear to believe pretty much the same thing. That’s why they launched–belatedly–Kerry’s “I’m a strong leader” biographical ad campaign.

Maybe it will work. Kerry is certainly getting a push from events. The recent good news on jobs, for example, was released the same day that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld went to Capitol Hill for his public dressing-down over abuses at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. It’s fair to say that while both stories were reported, the bad news effectively drowned out the good news, especially in television coverage.

If you were a Kerry strategist, you’d have to be happy about that. If only your candidate had something better to say.

Byron York is also a columnist for The Hill, where a version of this first appeared.


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