What goes up must come down. Not surprisingly, right after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Bush’s job approval ratings spiked to historic levels. Media surveys showed that 90 percent or more of Americans approved of the job he was doing as president. Almost two years later, however, Bush’s poll numbers have dropped. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted on Sept. 14, 2003, slightly more than half — 53 percent — approve of the president’s policies abroad, a drop from 67 percent two months ago. Moreover, 85 percent fear the United States will get bogged down in a long and costly peacekeeping effort in Iraq, up from 76 percent in less than three weeks. On the domestic front, 56 percent disapprove of the way Bush is handling the economy — the highest negative rating on this measure since he took office. Finally, more than six in 10 are critical of the way Bush is dealing with the health care issue, again another record high.
However, Bush’s presidency is not verging on the brink of disaster as some might think. Although Bush averaged a 56 percent approval rating in major media surveys this August, this rating was higher than that of his predecessor, Bill Clinton, the same time in 1995. And we all remember that Clinton comfortably won over former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan). One last statistic: 36 percent of the public wanted to see Clinton re-elected in November 1995 compared to 44 percent of the public who wanted to see Bush reelected this August.
So, what are we to make of this statistical soup of numbers and percentages? Well, it is true that Bush’s approval ratings have slid since Sept. 11, but keep in mind that his approval ratings were at a historically unprecedented high immediately after the attack on the World Trade Center. No president could have maintained a 90 percent approval rating for very long. Bush’s approval ratings are still stable and relatively strong, despite concerns over his indefinite commitment in Iraq, a sluggish economy and a high unemployment rate — stronger in fact than Clinton’s approval ratings at comparable points in their presidencies.
The American public still likes Bush, but just not as much as they used to. And this leaves room for a possible Democratic victory in 2004, as long as Democrats avoid some of the pitfalls they encountered in the 2002 congressional election cycle. Terrorism and security became critical focal points in 2002, but Democrats focused almost exclusively on prescription drugs and Social Security, never really engaging Republicans on the national security debate.
In order to win in 2004, the Democratic Party needs to take advantage of the American public’s disapproval of the Bush’s handling of Iraq. Democrats also need to realize, though, that although Americans may disapprove of Bush’s plans in Iraq, they still want a capable commander-in-chief who will promote American interests abroad. They want someone like retired four-star general Wesley Clark, who was head of the U.S. Southern Command and NATO commander during the 1999 campaign in Kosovo, or the sponsor of the Homeland Security Bill, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who continues to lead in the field candidates with 22 percent support among Democrats, according to the Sept. 14 Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Moreover, Democrats need to do everything in their power to refocus the debate on domestic issues like health care, education reform, and energy without looking weak and noncommittal on foreign policy issues. Also, let’s not forget about the economy. In the Sept. 14 Washington Post-ABC News Poll, roughly six in 10 people said jobs and economy were more important than the war on terrorism. These recent polls show that Democrats need to emphasize their commitment to economic growth and job creation. “We’ve got to tell them how we’re going to grow the economy and make sure everyone benefits in ways [they] won’t [under Bush]. What we also have to do to beat Bush is to grab the mantle of reform,” Democratic Leadership Council leader Al From said. After all, as Paul Begala would say, it’s still the economy, stupid.
Yassmin Sadeghi is a freshman in Morse College. She is a member of the Yale College Democrats.