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Second-Term Blues

Recently, President Bush has suffered one blow after another.

By Patricia Smith



For the past couple of months, George W. Bush seems to have been in a Murphy's Law period of his presidency: Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. First, there was the White House's disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina in August. Then, soaring gas prices. The failed Supreme Court nomination of Harriet E. Miers. The criminal indictment of a senior White House aide. And all the while, the number of American casualties in Iraq has continued to mount, topping 2,000 in late October.

And so a President whose approval ratings were above 60 percent for much of his first term, suddenly finds himself, less than a year after the start of his second term, with fewer than 40 percent of Americans saying he's doing a good job. (See graph, above.) "Now we're going to find out the resilience of this White House," says David Winston, a Republican pollster. "There's no question this is the single most-difficult moment in public opinion that this White House has faced in office."

The President—and the nation—face important challenges, and Bush's sagging poll numbers may make it even more difficult to get things done in Washington. Bush had an ambitious second-term agenda, including the partial privatization of Social Security and a new national energy policy. But with the White House struggling just to keep afloat through what seems like one crisis after another, analysts say that many of Bush's plans are now in question.

A Series of Crises

Low poll numbers do indeed affect a President's ability to implement his agenda, says Brandice Canes-Wrone, a presidential scholar at Princeton University. Many government initiatives—Social Security reform, for example—involve complex concepts that many Americans either don't understand or haven't formed strong opinions about. "If you don't think the President is doing a good job in general," she says, "the last thing you're going to do is give him the benefit of the doubt on this complicated reform proposal."

Low approval ratings can also diminish a President's clout with world leaders, says Stephen Hess, a professor of public affairs at George Washington University. And they can give him less clout with Congress. "The President's falling ratings give the opposition leader greater leeway to attack," Hess says, "and with the distribution between majority and minority so slim on Capitol Hill, anything can lead to gridlock."

The Bush administration has been besieged in the last few months by a series of crises, all of which seem to have affected the President's popularity. They include:

> Response to Hurricane Katrina. The administration is widely perceived as having fumbled the initial response to the disaster in New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast. The TV images of thousands of mostly black and poor people stranded in the flooded city without food and water shocked Americans, with many blaming Bush and the the federal government.

> Gas prices. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, gasoline prices topped a record $3 a gallon, outraging many Americans and prompting general unease about the economy.

> Miers nomination. Bush's failed nomination of White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers to fill Sandra Day O'Connor's seat on the Supreme Court produced a rupture with his conservative base, which had already been distressed by the President's deficit spending policies. Critics on both the left and the right complained that her qualifications were less than impressive and that her judicial philosophy was a mystery.

> Libby indictment. On October 28, Vice President Dick Cheney's Chief of Staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, was indicted on perjury and obstruction-of-justice charges. The indictment follows two years of investigation into whether White House officials leaked the name of a CIA agent in retaliation for her husband's criticism of the administration's rationale for going to war in Iraq. It was the first time since 1875 that a sitting White House official had been indicted.

> Iraq war. The last week in October, the number of American soldiers killed in Iraq passed 2,000—more than 14 times the 138 who had died by the time Bush declared major combat operations over on May 1, 2003. More than 15,000 American soldiers have also been wounded in Iraq.

On the heels of all this bad news, the President went to Latin America in early November where he was greeted by vociferous street protests in Argentina and Brazil and a lukewarm reception from the region's leaders. When Bush first took office in 2001, he touted his understanding of the region. Now, opinion polls indicate that he is the most unpopular American President ever in Latin America.

Meanwhile, at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, where Congress resides, Representative Tom DeLay, Republican of Texas, was indicted on charges of improperly funneling corporate donations to Republican candidates in Texas. The charges forced DeLay to step down from his position as Majority Leader.

The corruption and cronyism allegations swirling around Republicans in the White House and Congress are the kinds of issues that have historically disturbed moderate swing voters. Democrats are hoping this translates into big gains for them in next November's congressional elections, their next opportunity to retake control of the House or the Senate. They already fared well in this year's election, edging out Republicans to hold on to the governorships of Virginia and New Jersey.

Bush's Response

President Bush and his chief adviser, Karl Rove, came to Washington hoping to establish Republicans as the majority party for a generation or more. The election results of 2002 and 2004 suggested their strategy was working. During the past four years, there had been a steady increase in voters who call themselves Republicans, as well as in the number of unaligned voters who say they lean Republican, says Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. But Kohut notes that recent polls suggest the trend may be reversing.

"The whole Katrina thing served as a catalyst to be critical of Bush," Kohut says. "For the fist time since September 11, people are saying that domestic issues are a higher priority than the war on terrorism, and that has really been devastating for this President."

In response to these recent setbacks, Bush is trying to re-establish his image as a strong leader. In October, he renewed his calls for a guest-worker visa program to address the problem of illegal immigration. In early November, he proposed spending $7.1 billion to prepare for a global influenza pandemic that many scientists say is a looming threat. And he has tried to take the offensive on Iraq, accusing Democrats of trying to rewrite the history of the run-up to war.

Bush is not alone among recent Presidents in experiencing a rough second term. Political observers say the rush of being re-elected often leads to a kind of political hubris, an overreaching that can result in problems. In the last 30 years, every two-term President has faced serious problems in his second term (see graphic, right). Richard Nixon was forced to resign in the wake of Watergate. Ronald Reagan struggled through the Iran/Contra Affair, and Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

"Presidents tend to do less well in their second terms," says Princeton's Canes-Wrone. "The longer a President is in office, the less he can promise or bargain with."

A bad sign?

While many Presidents have rebounded from bad second-term spells, Kohut says, he doesn't think things look good for President Bush. "Reagan's rebounding after Iran/Contra could happen based on a reorganization of the White House," he explains. "For Bush's ratings to get better, events on the ground [like the price of gas and the death toll in Iraq] have to improve."

Furthermore, polls suggest that Americans are despondent about the state of the country-—typically a bad sign for a party in power, says Michael K. Deaver, who was a senior adviser to President Reagan.

"The thing that is the most disturbing to me now—this wasn't true then [during the Reagan administration]—is this sort of hopelessness that the American people are feeling," says Deaver. "When you have 70 percent of the people saying they don't think things are going to get better—that to me is the most disturbing thing."