George W. Bush, the only presidential son since John Quincy Adams to serve as chief
executive, could emulate the Adams family in one other respect. Like Adams senior and Bush
senior, W. could well be a one-term president.
Recent polls bring nasty news for Bush. His approval rating has plummeted. Despite the generally
favorable media spin on his recent European trip - that world leaders were pleasantly surprised that he
wasn't a total moron - the public isn't buying it.
A New York Times/CBS poll found that a majority of voters doubt his ability to lead in an international
crisis and doubt that foreign leaders have respect for Bush. On domestic issues, the margin of distrust is
Voters don't trust Bush to make the right picks for the Supreme Court (37 percent do, 51 percent
don't). And on most issues before Congress, voters by large margins are more sympathetic to the
Democratic position. These include giving patients broad rights in health plans, adding prescription drug
coverage to Medicare, raising the minimum wage, and emphasizing environmental quality over more
A large majority of Americans take global warming seriously and believe Bush doesn't. By huge margins,
voters see his tax and budget policies as favoring the rich. They don't trust that he has the right formula
to fix Social Security. In fairness, Bush is just six months into his presidency. Presumably, he has ample
time to recover.
But underlying factors make course correction difficult.
For one thing, his own coalition is fractious and unstable. Bush just barely got elected, by bringing
together business conservatives wanting deregulation and tax breaks with social conservatives wanting a
turn to the right government support for religion and restrictions on reproductive choice. By posturing
to be far more centrist than he intended to be as president, he attracted just enough support from
moderate voters to get elected.
In theory, Bush can recover by moving to the center. But how does he do this without alienating his
base? Social conservatives are already angry at him for failing to deliver school vouchers and for
appointing a moderate Democrat, John DiIulio, to head his program of religious initiatives. Key
industry backers are worried that he'll compromise with Democrats on patients' rights and on price
regulation of energy costs. Foreign policy conservatives want a tougher line on Russia and China.
Second, Bush's election was in some ways a fluke. It is increasingly clear that he won only because Al
Gore waged a dismal campaign. Gore was personally unconvincing; he managed to get saddled with the
awkward minuses of the Clinton era but seemed unable to take credit for the pluses.
The longer-term demographic and social trends seem to favor Democrats. California, once a fortress of
Republicanism, is solidly Democratic, thanks to immigrants resentful of Republican anti-migrant
policies, a resurgent labor movement, and a backlash against Republican-led energy deregulation. Florida
in a fair election would have gone for Gore. The post-baby boom generation, supposedly individualistic
and entrepreneurial, may be politically moderate on economic questions, but it is passionately
pro-environment and pro-abortion rights, and doesn't want government sponsoring religion.
Third, Bush's ideology and program may be out of synch with the actual issues on people's minds. The
timing is not good for a Reaganite set of remedies. Twenty years ago you could make a plausible case
that taxes were too high and that industry could use some shaking up. But this decade has brought the
free-market morning after.
The bloom is off the stock market. Consumers are disgusted with a whole range of deregulated
industries, from electric companies to airlines. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, despite its
Republican majority, voted for price caps against the explicit wishes of the president and his energy
secretary. The problems of the morning after just don't lend themselves to free-market solutions.
Finally, Democrats in Congress are emerging from their shell-shock. Bush was able to rush his tax
program through Congress in part because Republican control of both houses allowed his allies to set
agendas and hog the microphone. But that's over. As recent Democrat-led Senate hearings on energy
prices make clear, Democratic control of the Senate brings an ability of offer contrasting agendas that
resonate with public opinion. It's a long way to 2004, but for once, Democrats are enjoying a tailwind.
One other detail: It wasn't only papa John Adams who served just one term. So did his son, John
Quincy Adams. Maybe these misfortunes run in families.