Poll Numbers Do More Than Merely Reflect Bush’s Problems

by Stuart Rothenberg November 21, 2005 · 8:28 AM EST

I’ve been thinking about writing this column for a few months, but this week’s reporting on President Bush finally convinced me that I could wait no longer.

On Monday night, I heard CNN’s Anderson Cooper report that “Mr. Bush’s trip [to Asia] comes as his approval rating dips to the lowest level of his presidency.”

That phrase, “the lowest level of his presidency,” or similar phrases have been uttered innumerable times over the past six months as Bush’s poll numbers have dropped. Sometimes the description has even been accurate, but in every case, the comment has added to the president’s woes.

Cooper added, “A new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found only 37 percent of Americans approve of the way he’s handling the job. Sixty percent disapprove.”

That additional bit of information both clarified and corrected Cooper’s initial assertion that Bush’s numbers were at their nadir, in CNN polling, at least.

Actually, the president’s job approval has been lower in national polling. An Oct. 30-Nov. 1 survey conducted by CBS News found Bush’s job approval at 35 percent. And polls conducted by Newsweek, Fox News/Opinion Dynamics and the Pew Research Center, and released before the CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey reached CNN’s air or hit the pages of USA Today, also found the president with a lower job approval rating of 36 percent.

Of course, CNN isn’t the only network to hype the “lowest” poll. On the Nov. 13 edition of “Good Morning America,” ABC’s Kate Snow referred to a “new poll” that found the president’s job approval at 36 percent, “the lowest of his presidency.”

Again, that ABC report came well after the CBS survey showing Bush’s job approval at 35 percent.

Over at CBS, things were a bit more confused (and confusing).

On Nov. 14, according to a CBS News transcript, reporter Thalia Assuras referred during “The Early Show” to “new poll numbers showing the president’s job approval his lowest ever: 36 percent according to Newsweek magazine.” But the reporter then continued that “a CBS poll showed his rating down to 35 percent.”

My point definitely is not that Bush’s problems are a creation of the media. Rather, it is that Bush has plenty of problems, from Iraq to gas prices to the indictment of the vice president’s chief of staff, and that the explosion of polls is turning out to be another headache for the White House.

Every few days, there is another survey that finds Americans unhappy with the president’s leadership, his performance on the economy, health care or Iraq. Television networks and newspapers report about their own polls, as well as about surveys released by other television networks, major newspapers or institutions of higher education.

The constant drumbeat of negativity creates a bandwagon effect. After all, if more and more people think Bush is doing a poor job, maybe he is doing a bad job. That sort of thinking can’t help Bush.

Moreover, the focus on poll results emphasizes process, not policy. The result is that the president is unable to get his message out about his agenda. (Admittedly, it probably doesn’t help the White House that it appears not to have much of an agenda. But that’s a different problem.)

The president has begun to fire back recently, arguing in speeches that his adversaries are rewriting history on Iraq. But while that White House response is necessary and politically appropriate, it isn’t likely to move public opinion very far, if at all.

Few other voices have joined the president in defending himself. Congressional Republicans would prefer the Iraq war to go away, so they haven’t become a chorus of support for Bush.

Bush’s White House team and Cabinet would seem to be an obvious place where he could generate a chorus of support, but their utility is limited. The vice president isn’t an asset at the moment, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld probably is a liability (since he serves as a reminder of earlier Bush administration claims), and the rest of the Cabinet — except for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — appears to be utterly irrelevant.

But the lack of a chorus defending him isn’t the biggest of Bush’s problems.

Opinion against the president is gelling, making it difficult for him to change public opinion merely by giving speeches. Sure, he might steel some grass-roots Republicans and remind conservatives why they supported him. But speeches aren’t likely to improve his standing with political moderates and independents, and that limits the extent to which his poll numbers can rebound.

Ultimately, the president needs some good news. He needs a reason for Americans who have become disillusioned to reassess his performance and change their opinion about the kind of job he is doing.

Unless and until that happens, all of the bad news — including all of the polling stories and survey results — will weigh Bush down. And down. And down.