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President Bush Job Approval

RCP Average
Approve:36.8%
Disapprove:58.0%
Spread:21.2%
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Have Americans Soured on Bush's Views or His Competence?

By Peter Brown

As President Bush's poll ratings hit historic lows, the answer to whether he can rehabilitate his image may be rooted in why he has lost the support of the American people in the first place.

Simply put, are Americans fed up with Bush's brand of conservatism, or skeptical about the president's competence, his ability to make the trains run on time?

With only a third of Americans approving of his job performance, even his most committed supporters, mainstream conservatives and evangelical Christians, are complaining.

If the dramatically lower numbers result from Americans souring on the president's vision for the United States, then it will be difficult, if not impossible, for Bush to return to the point in the public's mind where he was when re-elected 18 months ago.

Strange as it may seem, it would be easier for Bush to regain his popularity if his problems stem from a perceived lack of competence.

For example, if the president's poor ratings stem primarily from Americans' views that Bush & Co. has made too many mistakes in how they fought the war in Iraq and led the post-war reconstruction, rather than the decision to invade, that is another matter.

At this point it is not clear from the polling data exactly why the public has gone so sour on the president.

The confusion stems from the nature of how public opinion surveys are conducted. They make it difficult to get at the competence question unless it is asked directly, which surveys rarely do. That is certainly the case where the polls show that about half of those who disapprove of Bush cite Iraq as the major reason.

Theoretically, it would be possible, although perhaps not easy, to convince voters that Bush knows what he is doing if the news from Iraq suddenly got dramatically better and American troops began coming come.

However, if the public is disillusioned with the Bush world view, then exactly how the situation in Iraq is resolved is less likely to make a difference.

Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush, lost in 1992 primarily because voters decided his priorities - too much of a fixation on foreign affairs at the expense of domestic needs - were out of whack.

But, President Jimmy Carter was defeated for a second term in 1980 primarily because of a voter consensus that although he was a good, honest man with the right priorities, his administration could not organize a one-car funeral.

In general, any way back in the public opinion polls for this President Bush would require he and his administration to demonstrate their ability to deal with the nation's problems in a way that satisfies the public. The public has so far found the record in dealing with Hurricane Katrina's aftermath, and implementation of the prescription drug plan, as unacceptable.

That is why, for instance, the president and his aides are so desperate to have Congress pass an immigration reform bill, among other measures.

And, of course, unforeseen events, such as the capture of Osama Bin Laden, could provide a political environment that could favor the president. However, an economic downturn would make his task that much more difficult.

Even at the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, a vocal minority of Americans opposed the decision as the embodiment of Bush's overly aggressive and unilateral foreign policy. Democrats like to believe that many of the millions who voted for Bush, but now think he is a failed president, have also adopted their viewpoint.

Maybe yes. Maybe no.

The question is why the roughly 20 percent of Americans who once gave Bush a positive job approval rating have soured on his presidency.

Have they suddenly become foreign policy doves, or have they decided that Bush & Co. can't walk and chew gum at the same time?

When we find the answer to that question, we'll have a much better idea of whether George W. Bush can do anything to resurrect his presidency.

Peter A. Brown is assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. He can be reached at peter.brown@quinnipiac.edu

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