WASHINGTON -- "What's all this NBC/Wall Street Journal poll b.s.?" a laughing George W. Bush asked a top aide Thursday. The survey that morning reported President Bush's job approval rating slipping to 50 percent, its lowest presidential measurement since Bill Clinton's five years earlier. Bush was personally amused, but the survey provided more fuel for a frenzy inside the Washington Beltway.
Beginning with the CBS/New York Times poll a week earlier showing a 53 percent approval for Bush, the capital's chattering class has declared the five-month old presidency in serious trouble. In fact, there have been no defeats or blunders to suggest a real crisis for the new president. The poll results are dubious, but behind them are stark realities of politics in America today.
Touching base with Republican politicians across the country revealed to me nothing like the crisis of confidence in the GOP base that afflicted Bush's father near the end of his term nearly a decade ago. Rather, Bush the younger is suffering from a collision between his agenda and the prevailing liberal culture of the Washington establishment. Any president who aggressively advocates tax reduction, reduced spending and less government is in for trouble.
The polls certainly do not justify the claim that the American people have rejected a conservative agenda. The average job approval of 54 percent reflected by seven national polls during the honeymoon period of the first two months remains at precisely 54 percent. This is somewhat worse than the 59 percent recorded by Ronald Reagan at this point in his presidency, and much better than Clinton's 39 percent at the same time.
Clinton was off to a dreadful start, thanks to his mishandling of the issue of homosexuals in the military and his ill-fated energy tax (leading him at this point to a desperate expedient in reaching out to quondam Republican David Gergen). Not even his worst enemies attribute such blunders to George W. Bush's first six months in office, which saw passage of a major tax bill and near passage of education reform.
Bush has run into a rough patch, thanks mainly to Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont. His defection gave the Democrats control of the Senate and its agenda. That catapulted the "patients' bill of rights" onto the Senate floor, suddenly putting Bush on the defensive with the serious problems a president confronts when he opposes a popular measure. To accept it makes him look weak; to veto it is even worse politically.
Democratic control of the Senate also is bad news for Bush's effective takeover of the government, which already had been more difficult than any of the five transitions to an opposing party that I have witnessed dating back to 1960. Agonizingly tedious acquisition of security clearances, coupled with a hostile Senate confirmation process, means hostile bureaucrats and Clinton holdovers retain key governmental positions. It would be optimistic to say Bush can gain control of the government even by next March.
These problems are overlooked by the buzz inside Washington. The judgment by the media and liberal establishment, augmented by dubious polling results, is that Bush is simply not up to the job -- in short, is not smart enough to be president. That was also the judgment 20 years ago against Reagan, the only other president in the last half-century to take on the liberal ascendancy.
Unlike Reagan, however, Bush is not verbally adept and not inclined to immerse himself in written material. He learns by oral briefings, interrupting his briefer with rapid-fire questions (much like a Supreme Court justice interrupting a lawyer). Officials who have served under both Bushes say the son is considerably more focused than the father, who frequently lost concentration.
Does this good-natured, warm-spirited president realize that behind the poll-induced "crisis" is implacable opposition to the conservative principles that he advocates? His closest advisers say that he does, that he now understands that the liberal climate of Washington is not nearly so malleable as it was in Austin. He could surrender on energy, regulation and the budget, buying a kind of peace by effectively abandoning the presidency. Laughing off the polls suggests that he has the fortitude to avoid such a disaster.