Where is Bush's Strength?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, June 22, 2004; 10:35 AM

The conventional wisdom used to be that as long as the public's attention was on war and national security issues, reelection would be a cakewalk for President Bush. And, conversely, if the focus turned to the economy that would play into the hands of his Democratic challenger.

Wave goodbye to the conventional wisdom. Here's the new paradigm: The president and his aides are trying to turn the public's attention to the economy, which is actually showing some signs of recovery – because, as a new Washington Post poll confirms, Americans are losing confidence in Bush's leadership as commander in chief.

And yet, the economy may not be someplace where Bush can point to great leadership either.

Presidents have little direct control over the economy – they can't order it to do something, for instance.

It's debatable what effect Bush's biggest domestic achievements – huge tax cuts and increased defense spending – have actually had on economic indicators.

And the latest economic news (see below) is not really so great. There are still many fewer jobs today than when Bush took office and new figures show that wages are not keeping up with inflation.

Losing the Nation's Confidence

Richard Morin and Dan Balz report on the new Washington Post-ABC News poll: "Public anxiety over mounting casualties in Iraq and doubts about long-term consequences of the war continue to rise and have helped to erase President Bush's once-formidable advantage over Sen. John F. Kerry concerning who is best able to deal with terrorist threats, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

"Exactly half the country now approves of the way Bush is managing the U.S. war on terrorism, down 13 percentage points since April, according to the poll. . . . "

"Fewer than half of those surveyed – 47 percent – say the war in Iraq was worth fighting, while 52 percent say it was not. . . .

"Seven in 10 Americans now say there has been an 'unacceptable' level of casualties in Iraq. . . .

And: "[B]y 52 percent to 39 percent, Kerry is seen as more honest and trustworthy -- a troubling finding for Bush, whose truthfulness before the war in Iraq has been called into question."

Here's the story in a visual nutshell: This graphic shows the long term decline – and reverse in polarity – of Bush's approval ratings. The latest numbers show Bush's overall job approval rating at 47 percent, same as last month, while his disapproval rating ticked up to a new high of 51 percent.

Morin and Balz conclude: "That leaves Bush in a shaky position politically, based on the rankings of other recent presidents seeking reelection."

Gary Langer of ABC News writes: "While time ultimately will tell, at this point it's hard to see Iraq as anything but a net negative politically for the Bush administration. In addition to increasingly negative reaction to the level of casualties, and essentially split decisions on whether the war was worth fighting or improved U.S. security, other assessments have worsened as well.

"Seventy-six percent now say the war has damaged the United States' image in the rest of the world; that's 13 points more than last summer. Sixty-three percent say it's caused long-term harm to U.S. relations with countries that opposed the war, up 12 points. And just four in 10 say it's improved long-term stability in the Middle East, down eight points. (In a more positive assessment, 65 percent think the war has improved the lives of the Iraqi people.)"

A new NPR poll also finds Bush on the ropes.

But there's better news for Bush in the Wall Street Journal's Battleground States Poll, which shows him "continuing to gain on John Kerry among likely voters in 16 battleground states."

Focus on Domestic Policy

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush and Vice President Cheney Monday took fresh news of an improving employment outlook to Ohio and Nevada, states that are considered crucial for the two if they are to continue their own employment for another four years."

As usual, there was a fundraising side to it as well.

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "President Bush spent a speedy two and a half hours here on Monday collecting $2.5 million for the Republican Party and promoting a 'healthy marriage' initiative much favored by his conservative supporters."

Edwin Chen writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Bush's message Monday was likely to 'reinforce his conservative base, and it will play well in the Cincinnati area,' said Herb Asher, an Ohio State University political scientist."

Indeed, "Bush Praises Power of Love," says the headline over Gregory Korte's story in the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Barry M. Horstman writes in the Cincinnati Post that Bush "talked in upbeat terms about what he characterized as a recovering economy in Ohio, noting that the state's unemployment rate dropped from 5.8 percent to 5.6 percent last month.

" 'People are going back to work,' Bush said. 'The economy's getting better.' "

Here's the text of Bush's talk in Cincinnati.

Cheney, Too

Henry Brean writes in the Las Vegas Review-Journal: "Speaking in what he called 'one of the most confident, optimistic places in America,' Vice President Dick Cheney painted a sunny picture of the nation's economy during a brief campaign visit Monday to Henderson."

Henderson is just outside Las Vegas.

Brean writes: "His speech made no mention of the war in Iraq or the nuclear waste repository the federal government plans to build inside Yucca Mountain, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

"Instead, Cheney focused exclusively on job growth and other signs of economic recovery, which he credited to Bush administration tax cuts that he called on Congress to make permanent."

Richard Benedetto writes in USA Today: "Vice President Cheney charged Monday that the economic proposals of John Kerry would mean higher taxes that choke job growth.

"Cheney said Kerry would raise taxes and put up barriers to trade if elected, and that his 'pessimistic outlook' is reminiscent of the Carter administration, when the U.S. economy was crippled by high inflation and an oil embargo."

Cheney then flew to Springfield, Mo., for a fundraiser and a little personal economic stimulus.

James Goodwin and Jeff Arnold report in the Springfield, Mo., News-Leader that Cheney and his wife "shopped for about 30 minutes at Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World, a business Cheney said 'has a lot of my money.'

" 'I bought a pair of waders,' the fly-fisherman said, 'and a cleaner for my 12-gauge' shotgun. . . .

"The store is owned by John L. Morris, a Bush-Cheney supporter. President Bush visited the store during a February visit to Springfield."

Here's the text of Cheney's talk in Nevada.

Fact Check

So how about that economy?

Bloomberg today bursts Bush's economy balloon a bit, reporting: "A 2.2 percent rise in wages in the 12 months through May has been more than offset by a 3.1 percent gain in consumer prices. . . .

"The disparity between pay and prices may keep President George W. Bush from fully capitalizing on the economy's addition of 1.2 million jobs this year, the best five months of job growth since 2000, as he runs for re-election, said political analysts including Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution in Washington."

Furthermore, Bloomberg writes: "Even with the recent surge in jobs, the economy has had a net loss of 1.5 million jobs during Bush's term, including 2.9 million manufacturing jobs, which typically pay more than the service jobs that account for most of the positions now being added."

Terry Weber writes in the Toronto Globe and Mail: "The U.S. labour market – while finally experiencing increases in job creation – has also seen a dramatic drop in employment quality, with low-paying jobs elbowing aside higher-paying ones, CIBC World Markets [a major Canadian investment bank] said yesterday."

"The brokerage's employment quality index – which measures the overall tone of the market by looking at things such as compensation, job stability and the mix of full-time and part-time employment – fell by eight points between 2001 and 2004, a decline CIBC called dramatic."

CIA Plan May Change

Bush's original plan was to hold off on naming a permanent successor to CIA director George J. Tenet until after the election.

But Douglas Jehl writes in the New York Times that the White House is "actively debating" whether to act this summer instead.

"One hypothetical situation reportedly being discussed within the White House is how Mr. Bush would be perceived by the public if there is another terrorist attack against an American target before the election and an acting intelligence chief is still in place."

Cuba Watch

Is Cuba next? Fidel thinks it might be.

Anita Snow reports for the Associated Press that "Fidel Castro warned President Bush against launching a military attack on Cuba, saying it would provoke a mass exodus and an all-out ground war. . . .

" 'Do not try crazy adventures such as surgical strikes or wars of attrition using sophisticated techniques because you could lose control of the situation,' Castro said. . . .

"In May, a U.S. presidential commission delivered Bush what amounts to a policy of regime change in Cuba, recommending that the United States subvert the planned succession in Cuba under which power would pass from Castro to his younger brother, Raul."

Rise to Power

Bouncing 'round the blogosphere: This article by Josh Gerstein in the New York Sun, reporting that Guido Calabresi, a judge on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, "told a conference of liberal lawyers that President Bush's rise to power was similar to the accession of dictators such as Mussolini and Hitler."

Instapundit blogger Glenn Reynolds is all over it.

Laura Bush Chat

The first lady will take questions from registered users of the Bush/Cheney Web site this afternoon at 2:30 ET.

Today's Calendar

Bush meets with the prime minister of Hungary and makes remarks at the White House's Black Music Month reception in the East Room.

White House Does PR for Allawi

The Daily Kos blog publishes e-mails apparently from assistant White House press secretary Pamela Stevens to a network TV producer, trying to book new Iraqi interim prime minister Ayad Allawi.

"Seriously, does the White House run the press operations of other countries? Any other country?" asks Kos, also known as Markos Moulitsas Zúniga.

I ask: Who's sending him those e-mails?

© 2004 washingtonpost.com