Bush's Approval Takes a Tumble

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, March 25, 2005; 12:42 PM

Was President Bush's showy foray into the Terri Schiavo case a tremendous political miscalculation? Or could it be those skyrocketing gas prices?

One way or the other, Bush's approval ratings seem to have taken a sharp tumble in recent days.

As I noted in yesterday's column, the latest CBS and Newsweek polls showed a sudden drop-off.

Now comes Gallup, finding the public's satisfaction with the president at an all-time low.

Bill Nichols writes in USA Today: "President Bush's approval rating has fallen to 45%, the lowest point of his presidency, according to a new USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll."

"The finding, in a poll of 1,001 adults Monday through Wednesday, is a dip from 52% in a poll taken last week. . . .

"The White House declined to comment. Republican National Committee spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt said that Bush is taking on 'tough issues, whether it's to reform Social Security, promoting the spread of democracy or making a renewed pitch to Congress to pass comprehensive energy reform.' "

Here's a fascinating fact: "The new poll found the largest drop for Bush came among men, self-described conservatives and churchgoers."

Now I should point out, to be fair, that Bush's approval ratings were as low or lower in other polls last spring, when the public was at the height of its unease with the situation in Iraq and the prison abuse scandal. See pollingreport.com for more.

And Gallup itself explains: "This is the lowest such rating Bush has received since taking office, although it is not significantly different from the 46% approval rating he received in May 2004."

So what's up?

Gallup speculates that "[t]he timing of the seven-point drop suggests that the controversy over the Terri Schiavo case may be a major cause."

But the survey also "suggests that the public's increasingly dismal views about the economy, and about the way things are going in general, could also be factors in Bush's lower approval rating. . . .

"One factor contributing to the economic malaise is almost certainly the rising price of gas and oil. In an open-ended question, 17% of Americans cited fuel prices as the most important economic problem facing the country, up from just 5% who said that a month ago, and 3% who mentioned it in mid-January."

Here is the spread in approval rating polls since Bush took office, from DePaul University economics Professor Stuart Eugene Thiel's wonderful Professor Pollkatz's Pool of Polls Web site.

Thiel has another chart showing how Bush's approval tracks pretty closely to gas prices (inversely of course).

For a little historical context, I went back to look at pollingreport.com's summary of President Clinton's second-term job approval ratings, and it looks like they never got anywhere near so low. In fact, even during impeachment proceedings they remained largely in the 60s.

The Gallup numbers come on the heels of a CBS poll that found Bush's job approval rating down six points in a month to 43 percent, with his disapproval rating up four points to 48; and a Newsweek poll that found Bush's approval rating down five points to 45 percent, with his disapproval rating up six points to 48 percent.

Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press finds that support for Bush's proposed private accounts for Social Security dropped over the last month among its most likely supporters: younger Americans.

"In February, people age 18-29 favored the idea of private accounts by a 66%-19% margin. Today, just 49% favor private accounts, while 25% are opposed, and nearly as many (26%) say they don't know how they feel about the issue.

"Despite the White House effort to keep Social Security reform on the front burner, public awareness of the issue has not increased substantially over the past month."

Ironically, for the White House, that's a good thing.

"In general, opposition to the plan to allow private accounts is much higher among people who have heard a lot about it than among those who are less familiar with it. Overall, people who have heard a lot about the plan oppose it by 52%-41%, while those who have heard little or nothing favor it by a 47% to 30% margin."

Gas Watch

John Harwood writes in the Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire column that the White House won't intervene on gas prices.

"Bush is 'a believer in the free market,' says economic adviser Hubbard, noting price rises spur 'more supply.' He reiterates administration opposition to tapping Strategic Petroleum Reserve except in emergencies."

Progressive Indexation Watch

When it comes to Social Security, Bush and Vice President Cheney just can't stop talking about progressive indexation all of a sudden.

Progressive indexation would reduce Social Security's shortfall by cutting future benefits from those promised under current law. By twiddling a few key formulas, it would eventually mean big cuts for the wealthy, smaller cuts for the middle class, and no cuts for the poor.

The version of progressive indexation that Bush and Cheney are talking about also includes some private accounts.

But what's really fascinating about this is that although Bush's private-accounts proposal would potentially transform Social Security into a big 401(K) plan, progressive indexation would tend to turn it into more of a welfare program.

Isn't that going in precisely the opposite direction?

Well yes. But opponents point out that the two things have something in common: They both would fundamentally change Social Security.

Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times: "Though he has been loath to propose specific measures to reduce future benefits, Mr. Bush and other officials are gingerly promoting the idea as a way to cut costs and still protect low-income retirees.

"Supporters of 'progressive indexation' say it could achieve several goals: it would eliminate a big part of Social Security's long-running financial gap; it would guarantee benefits at current levels and allow them to rise in real terms for people at the bottom of the income ladder."

Andrews quotes critic Jason Furman, an economist at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: " 'This raises the question of whether broad political support for Social Security can be sustained if workers pay very different amounts of payroll taxes but most workers receive the same level of benefits,' Mr. Furman wrote in a research note on Monday."

Cheney Weighs In

James O'Toole writes in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about Cheney's Social Security talk in western Pennsylvania yesterday:

"Enumerating some of the options for restructuring the retirement system, Cheney mentioned a proposal from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., for lifting the $90,000 ceiling on the amount of income liable to the Social Security tax. President Bush has not ruled out that approach and Cheney mentioned it twice yesterday, although he noted that it would amount to 'a big hit,' on the self-employed and on small businesses.

"Cheney also pointed to a plan offered by Robert Pozen, a former member of Bush's advisory committee on Social Security, for indexing Social Security benefits on a sliding scale according to income." Pozen is the guru of progressive indexation.

O'Toole also notes: "By design, most of the audience, and most of the questions to Cheney, were friendly. Bob Glancey, chairman of the Allegheny County Republican Party, asked him why the proportion of contributions eligible for personal accounts wasn't even larger. . . .

"Cheney did face some skeptical questioning, however, as other members of the audience challenged him on the likely returns of the investment accounts, and on the fact, which Cheney acknowledged, that establishing personal accounts would not shore up Social Security's long-term financial outlook."

The Associated Press notes that Cheney got called out by an audience member after he lauded the Thrift Savings Plan, which lets federal government employees create private account over and above Social Security.

"One person in the audience, Kim Miller, 28, of Mount Lebanon, told the vice president she participated in that program during her three years as a congressional staffer, and did not do so well.

" 'Private accounts are putting a ton of risk on our shoulders,' she said."

Cheney also spoke in Battle Creek, Mich.

Blogger Holden doesn't like how the White House is being very slow about releasing the transcripts of the Cheney events, and he thinks it's on purpose.

WMD Commission Watch

Katherine Shrader writes for the Associated Press: "None of the 15 U.S. agencies that collected or assessed intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is likely to be commended for doing an exemplary job, according to officials familiar with a report being prepared by a presidential commission.

"The nine-member panel led by Republican Laurence Silberman, a retired federal appeals court judge, and Democrat Charles Robb, a former Senator from Virginia, is expected to issue its report on weapons of mass destruction next week. It's unclear how much of the report, which may run into the hundreds of pages, will be available to the public."

The Politics of Travel

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush expanded his planned May trip to Moscow by adding stops in two former Soviet republics that have resisted Russian influence, an itinerary seen as a pointed message to President Vladimir Putin. . . .

"The addition of Latvia and Georgia to the trip is likely to irritate the Russians, while demonstrating U.S. concern over Moscow's attempts to exercise sway over parts of its former empire, analysts said."

Here's the White House announcement.

Where's the Statement?

After tragedies of a certain order, it's standard operating procedure for the president to make a statement.

But Ceci Connolly writes in The Washington Post: "Native Americans across the country -- including tribal leaders, academics and rank-and-file tribe members -- voiced anger and frustration Thursday that President Bush has responded to the second-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history with silence. . . .

" 'From all over the world we are getting letters of condolence, the Red Cross has come, but the so-called Great White Father in Washington hasn't said or done a thing,' said Clyde Bellecourt, a Chippewa Indian who is the founder and national director of the American Indian Movement here. . . .

"The reaction to Bush's silence was particularly bitter given his high-profile, late-night intervention on behalf of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman caught in a legal battle over whether her feeding tube should be reinserted."

Draft Cheney Watch

Turns out Jonathan Chait and I have been gathering string on the same phenomenon -- but he published first, in this morning's Los Angeles Times: 'The Draft Cheney movement is burbling just below the surface. Fred Barnes suggested it earlier this month in the Weekly Standard. Tod Lindberg of the Washington Times and Lawrence Kudlow of National Review Online echoed Barnes in columns this week."

Chait notes how "the columns hyping Cheney read like a thinly disguised plea for Bush's support. 'If the president let it be known he thinks Cheney would be the best person to succeed him,' writes Barnes, 'that would be enough to release Cheney from his promise not to run.' "

The Wead Tapes, an Epilogue

Robin Abcarian writes in the Los Angeles Times about what the last several weeks have been like for Doug Wead, the former Bush friend whose secret tapes of the president wound up on the front page of the New York Times in February.

"The secret taping came to light after the New York Times received an advance copy of his most recent book, 'The Raising of a President' and began pressing Wead to show that his assertions about Bush -- who, Wead wrote, was worried that questions about drug use would haunt a presidential campaign -- were based on fact or firsthand knowledge. Now Wead faces an uncertain future. Furious criticism has come from the right, left and center. And though the president joked at the recent Gridiron dinner about Wead, ('Anyone looking for a transcript of the program should call Doug Wead'), the Bushes are famous for remembering and punishing breaches of trust. All the apologies in the world are unlikely to reopen doors that have slammed in Wead's face."

Faith Based Watch

NBC's Campbell Brown got an interview with David Kuo, the former deputy director in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

She reports: "The president promised $8 billion a year in tax incentives. It would have amounted to a huge increase in funds for all charities. But in negotiating the president's tax cut plan, the White House dropped the $8 billion in favor of other tax cuts.

"Kuo believes the White House, having reaped political benefit, didn't fight hard enough for the money. . . .

"As for Kuo, he says he hopes speaking out will spur the White House to push harder to make the president's faith-based initiative more about getting help to those in need."

Begging to Differ

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan writes in a letter to the editor in The Washington Post this morning: " 'U.S. Misled Allies About Nuclear Export,' the March 20 front-page story about nuclear material exported to Libya, was flat wrong. Our allies were not 'misled' by the United States about North Korea's proliferation activities. We provided an accurate account of the intelligence assessment of the most likely source of the nuclear material that was transferred to Libya through A.Q. Khan's network."

A Different Ballgame?

Judy Keen writes in USA Today: "President Bush has remodeled his team, his priorities and his style for his second term.

"He has centralized power in the White House and named a Cabinet of loyalists to ensure that they promote his agenda, not their own. He has defined a few goals -- overhauling Social Security and the tax code, spreading democracy in the Middle East -- and is changing the way he deals with Congress to try to achieve them."

Or More of the Same?

Julian Borger writes in the Guardian Weekly that when it comes to foreign policy: "Any embryonic thoughts that the world view from the White House had changed . . . have been dispelled by three stunning appointments over the past two weeks. . . .

"Taken together this string of nominations (all subject to confirmation) is reminiscent of the stereotypical American tourist abroad who, on meeting a foreigner who does not speak English, simply repeats himself more loudly. In this administration's eyes, the rest of the world has failed to grasp the virtue of its policies and needs to hear them again through a diplomatic megaphone."

The Bald Truth

I noted in Wednesday's column, in my final item, the preoccupation among several bloggers with Bush's well-documented predilection for touching bald people's pates.

What is that all about?

Well, a reader calls my attention to the fact that the mystery, such as it is, was actually solved in one of the other articles I linked to that day.

Alan Freeman of Toronto's Globe and Mail was writing about the highlights and lowlights of life in Crawford and asked some folks inside the Coffee Station, "the diner-cum-gas station on Crawford's Main Street that's the only eating place in town," what they thought of Bush.

"'He's very gracious and he's just happy,' said Dorothy Spanos, who operates the Coffee Station with her husband Nick.

"Mr. Bush comes by the restaurant occasionally, the last time was the Friday after U.S. Thanksgiving. The routine is always the same.

"'The Secret Service comes first. They secure the area. We turn the fuel pumps off and they bring in the dog. They're very discreet.

" 'Then they come in and he signs autographs and visits with the people,' she said, bringing a framed collection of 12 photos from the November visit.

" 'He loves rubbing bald heads. He says it brings him luck.' "

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