Disapproval Ratings

Over the weekend, political observers made much of the fact that a new poll showed John Kerry would defeat President Bush by 49 percent to 46 percent if the general election were held today. Of course, the election is not being held today, and Kerry's numbers probably owe more to renewed press and public interest in his campaign than to any other factor. What's more, it's unrealistic to expect that those numbers won't change at all in the next 10 months, especially because we're still not sure who the Democratic nominee will be.

But the numbers are part of an encouraging trend that shows Bush's vulnerability.

Just like his father, George W. Bush is finding that the bounce from a war in Iraq is short-lived. A poll conducted in mid-January by The New York Times and CBS News found that 48 percent of those surveyed approve of the way he's handled the situation in Iraq -- compared with 46 percent who disapprove. The president's numbers on foreign policy in general are similar. And while 68 percent approve of the way he's handled the campaign against terrorism (compared with 28 percent who disapprove), that mainly points up the rally-'round-the-flag effect that occurs when a nation is threatened. But if Bush was hoping that the invasion of Iraq would distract voters until after the election, it appears he was wrong.

That brings us to the economy. Forty-four percent of those polled approve of the job Bush is doing, while 51 percent disapprove. Elections are almost always decided on domestic matters, and very often on so-called pocketbook issues. Forty-one percent of voters think Bush hasn't done much of anything to improve the economy; 58 percent think he has. Yet more voters (65 percent) think the economy is staying about the same or getting worse, while just 34 percent think it is improving. Those are the kind of numbers likely to keep Karl Rove awake at night.

As the poll also found, Bush enjoys a 50-percent overall approval rating, while 45 percent of those surveyed disapprove. Those numbers aren't terrible, but they don't leave much room for error on the president's part. In January of 1992, George Bush Senior had a 48-percent approval rating -- and lost the election months later. In 1980, Jimmy Carter had a 52-percent approval rating -- and lost, too. In 1996, Bill Clinton had a 47-percent approval rating -- and won, in part because of his record and in part because Bob Dole was such a weak candidate. All three presidents also had lower disapproval ratings than Bush has now, another ominous sign for the Republicans.

What's more, Bush's national numbers were mirrored locally in Minnesota, an important swing state this year, according to a recent Minneapolis Star Tribune poll. They're also close to his approval levels before September 11, when he certainly looked like a one-term president.

So seeing as the war in Iraq and the tax cuts aren't inspiring huge numbers of voters, don't be surprised to see Bush try to change the agenda to get a bump in the polls. His plan to send an astronaut to Mars, for example, may be exciting, but it has little relevance to most people's lives on Earth. And like other projects Bush has proposed -- such as hydrogen-powered cars, which he mentioned in last year's State of the Union address but have appeared to go nowhere -- it's a plan that won't be completed until years after he leaves office.

The poll results are good news for
the Democrats, provided they can take advantage of
Bush's weakness. They showed encouraging signs of
doing so last week in the New Hampshire debate,
spending more time attacking the president's record
than one another. As many challengers will note, it
takes not only weakness on an incumbent's part but a
strong alternative to make voters give up on the known
person in power and cast their ballots for the
unknown. But if Bush's numbers are any guide,
Democrats could be well on their way to convincing
voters to do just that later this year.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill.