Voter disconnect

Posted: Apr 13, 2006 12:05 AM

I have often been quick to take President Bush and especially his political handlers and advisers to task.

The reason is that this column is devoted to examining public opinion. For many months, I've been voicing the ever-stronger belief that support for the Bush White House and the Republican-led Congress was crumbling.

Now those early observations have become fact, reflected in abysmal approval numbers for both the president and the Congress.

So, as I am apt to do, I'm taking an issue or, in this case, a person whom I've long viewed negatively and -- right when all seems darkest -- finding a reason to look at them in a softer light.

I have to ask if the American public is in touch with reality. Public surveys show that most people believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. But circumstances don't support this reductive view.

There's certainly a lot of bad in the world.

Iraq is unpleasant even to think about. When an American soldier -- or anyone else -- is killed or hurt, we all bleed a little inside.

And yet, the scope of the war, including the length of its casualty lists, isn't nearly what it was in many past U.S. conflicts. That includes Vietnam, to which Iraq is often compared.

Backing for the war now comes only in trace amounts. But support for the troops remains high. And, critically, political forces show slow but sure signs of gradually disengaging us from Iraq.

Also bad: The Bush White House has long looked to be in the pocket of big business and special interest groups.

Vice President Dick Cheney has set a tone of general surliness, despite the fact that he is beloved by those who know him well.

From the Enron scandal to Hurricane Katrina disaster relief, this administration has been viewed as insensitive and unresponsive.

Now -- believe it or not -- the good.

Possibly by blind luck, but more likely because of a willful strategy of employing offense as the best defense against terrorism, apparently not one American has died from a terrorist attack on our shores since Sept. 11. Many attacks have happened overseas, and at least a handful are known to have been planned for here. They were foiled.

We have ascended from a crippling economic recession. The U.S. economy is robust -- at least for now -- with a bull stock market for almost four years. Most who want a job have one. Interest rates are still historically low, despite recent hikes.

On this stage, and under increasingly mixed reviews, the Bush White House has stumbled along with dramatic cry after cry about this or that "catastrophe."

Take illegal immigration. It's been rampant (and illegal!) for years.  Now suddenly, television tells us that it's an urgent matter.

The president's proposals for reform aren't perfect, but his willingness to grab the problem by the horns puts him miles ahead of the lazy and inattentive Congress.

Case in point: The Senate refused to adopt toothy amendments to its version of an immigration bill, such as the one proposed by Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) that would have disallowed provisional "guest status" to illegal immigrants until after Homeland Security certified that the borders of the country were secure.

It was hardly Bush's fault that Congress recessed for Easter before they'd acted on the same immigration "crisis" they'd bemoaned for at least weeks.

It's often pointed out that the president's dismal popularity has dragged down Congress with it. Less said is the equal truth that the Republicans in Congress have returned the favor by weighing on Bush.

I used to see the president on TV and feel irritation with his smug style or his ill-prepared remarks. Now I feel empathy, even sympathy. The man with more crises to deal with than any president since Franklin Roosevelt simply can't win for losing.

Heck, John F. Kennedy handled a few weeks worth of confrontation with missiles in Cuba, and to this day he is revered for it. Give me a break.

But my opinion matters not. What Bush supporters and the Republicans have to realize is that most of the public's impression of the GOP leadership is bad. Really bad.

The essential question is when and whether the general public at some point will take a look around, take notice of their own personal circumstances and ask themselves, "Why is it I dislike George W. Bush so much?"

That self-questioning may never happen. Perhaps Bush is doomed to leave office with tanked popularity, a la Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter.

If so, he can blame himself -- and plenty of others while he's at it.

First on that list of infamy should be the do-nothing, GOP-led Congress. Its members had best be praying that they find a golden Easter egg on their holiday break. Because long before Bush leaves office, hopefully after a full eight years of service, a good number of Republican House and Senate members may have moved on themselves, courtesy of the voters.