Headlines this week announced that President Bush’s approval ratings have now fallen to their lowest mark since the terrorist attacks of two Septembers ago. Most stories were couched as a defeat for the president and focused on the probable causes for the end of his post 9/11 popularity. Causes for the presidents decline have been listed as the continuing turmoil in Iraq and focus on the claim he made in his State of the Union address that Iraq had attempted to by nuclear material from Africa, continuing poor economic news, massive new budget deficits, and the fact that ten Democrats have begun their presidential campaigns by focusing their barbs against him.
What has been lost among these stories is that put into historical perspective, this decline in the president’s popularity is both undramatic and overdue. During times of crisis, the American people rally around their president and the major institutions and symbols of government. Political scientists call this phenomenon the “rally effect” and it has almost universally been true that after moments of trauma and uncertainty, the sitting president’s popularity rises considerably.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, for instance, Franklin Roosevelt’s approval ratings jumped 12 points and after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy’s popularity rose 13 points. Until the attacks of 9/11, the record rally effect was held by the first President Bush who, following the successful war to liberate Kuwait, saw his popularity with the American people rise 18-percentage points. George W. Bush’s popularity, on the other hand, rose an astounding 35 points (from 51 percent to 86 percent)–almost doubling the previous record. He would eventually become the most popular president in the history of polling when he reached 90-percent approval in the fall of 2001.
Equally inevitable, following the end of the time of crisis, presidential popularity falls again to its previous level (or even lower). Seldom does a president’s crisis-induced popularity last longer than a few months and none has ever lasted longer than ten months. President Bush’s rally is now over, but it took two full years to reach that point–shattering the old record and setting a bar it will be difficult if not impossible for any president ever to match.
What has been lost to the journalists and pundits in recent weeks is that we are seeing the end of an historic moment when a president rallied the American people under difficult political, economic, and security circumstances and kept them with him for longer than any president in history. Few could have predicted two years ago that a man widely mocked in the media for verbal gaffes and who won the presidency under contentious political and legal circumstances would be transformed into the most popular president in the history of polling and who would hold that public with him longer than celebrated wartime presidents FDR and Harry S. Truman.
The president cannot be happy to have an approval rating of just 50 percent a year before he stands for reelection. However, put into historical perspective, Bush’s record-breaking popularity of the last two years was unprecedented and the current decline inevitable. And, as I am sure his advisers are reminding him, his current approval ratings mirror those of both Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan at similar points in their first terms–both who went on a year later to handily win reelection.
–Gary L. Gregg is coeditor of Considering the Bush Presidency.