On the one-year anniversary of a singularly disappointing day, George W. Bush has hit his all-time low approval rating: 35 percent, compared to 57 percent disapproval. The CIA leak and the indictment of Irving Lewis Libby seems to be driving this in part, though I think there's something bigger going on...
Most Americans believe someone in the Bush Administration did leak Valerie Plame's name to reporters – even though Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald indicted no one for doing that. Half of the public describes the matter as something of great importance to the country, and this poll finds low assessments of both the President and the Vice President – with the President's overall approval rating dropping again to its lowest point ever.
Now, Presidents Reagan and Clinton never saw their ratings drop as precipitously as has Bush, despite the prominence of the Iran-Contra and Blowgate scandals. My own opinion is that Clinton's problem wasn't as serious as those of the two Republicans (and considering that his ratings actually rose during the Gingrich/DeLay/Starr inquisition, a lot of people evidently agreed), but even Reagan--whose scandal, selling weapons to a terrorist-sponsoring state and lying to Congress to do it, was quite substantive--didn't suffer anything like the hit Bush is taking. So the question is, what's different?
Two things, I think. One reflects that oft-quoted, somewhat banal but also somewhat telling "right track/wrong track" question the pollsters ask. According to the most recent sampling, 68 percent--more than two thirds!--are "dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time." As the link shows, that's just less than twice as many people who felt that way during Clinton's political travails, and my guess is that the state of opinion in late 1986 and through 1987 was closer to what it was in Clinton's second term than now.
Almost nobody is happy. In pocketbook terms, real wages are stagnant for most (though corporate profits remain super-high) while prices are beginning to rise; increasingly, the jobs we're creating aren't family-supporting and don't come with benefits we generally consider to be pretty important. Culturally, there isn't much to hold on to. Politically, about half of us--my half, probably your half--are angry at, contemptuous of, and utterly alienated from "our leaders." But even the other side, I think, is less than thrilled: some of them have probably figured out what we knew a year ago, which is that these guys have one hand up their collective ass and the other in the public pocket, but even the ones who haven't yet concluded that Bush is a boob must be frustrated that they haven't yet remade the country along their chosen lines.
The second reason is that when you're never all that popular to start with--when you really don't even make an effort to lead rather than simply rule--you're going to fall farther. Bush is at his most effective politically when defining himself against an enemy; last year, John Kerry fit the bill. But unlike Reagan and Clinton in their far more decisive re-election wins, Bush never seriously tried to run on his record (except the blowin'-stuff-up part) or lay out his vision for the country. (And don't give me that Social Security crap; he almost never talked about it on the trail, certainly not in specifics; of course, it's tough to tout what you don't understand.) He sliced, diced, pandered, bullied and "misrepresented"; that got him 51 percent, and he's rarely been that high since.
Though the country rejects Bush by a significantly larger margin than than with which they embraced him a year ago today, Josh Marshall points out that "[b]y one measure you have to concede that the joke is really on the 65% of us who think he blows. Because no matter how unpopular he is, he's still president." True. But a part of me that's probably less idealistic than I'd really prefer still whispers that this isn't all bad: given a chance to experience unchallenged Republican rule, the country sees an indicted Tom DeLay, an under-investigation Bill Frist, and a White House that can't respond to a hurricane or keep security secrets. Iraq is a mess, the public books are soaking in red ink, gas prices are high, and we're comprehensively polarized. If the Democrats have any smarts and guts whatever--a debatable premise, though the latter is less a worry after yesterday's Senate action--they should be able to point out that there's a clear political solution to this state of affairs.
Hope dies last.