The latest musings by non-pollsters about why the president’s poll numbers, according to one survey, have dipped below 60% for the first time since 9/11 offers an important lesson to political observers.
It is tempting but dangerous to confuse causation with coincidence. Folks gaze at the results and offer their own biased view as to why this must be. “He’s giving tax breaks to the rich”; “He’s too conservative”; “He’s not conservative enough”; “Americans don’t want to go to war with Iraq”; “Americans wonder why we haven’t already gone to war with Iraq” are among the formulaic comments uttered by the chattering class. Musings they are, since the classic approve/disapprove question is generic, asking nothing about policy, or anything particularly helpful for that matter.
The charge that these poll numbers reflect something more severe to the president’s political fortunes than the relative unease about the economy and war felt by many Americans is as misplaced as the belief that approval ratings exceeding 70% insulates one from political or electoral vulnerability. Mr. Bush’s father’s approval rating were stratospheric during his confrontation with Saddam Hussein in 1991, only to have them cut in half as he lost reelection to Bill Clinton a short time later. Additionally, when Congress passed the president’s first tax-reduction package (pre-9/11) the president’s job performance was at 52%.
That same poll revealed more-specific, and therefore more-relevant, assessments of the public’s opinion about President Bush, which have not received as much coverage as the approval rating. Americans told the pollsters at CNN/USA Today that they regard Mr. Bush as a strong and decisive leader (76%) who is willing to make hard decisions (83%) and who has a vision for the country’s future (68%).
President Bush should lose no sleep over the latest ratings, but the parade of Democratic benchwarmers who seek to unseat him in ‘04, might. At 58%, Mr. Bush’s approval rating is identical to that of President Reagan on the eve of his landslide reelection in 1984.”