November 19, 2007

The Lagging Indicator

When a newspaper really misses the point, they usually do so on the front page. The Washington Post does that today in an intriguing but incomplete analysis of the sudden reinvigoration of the Bush administration. While Peter Baker notes that the White House seems to have started a winning streak at home and abroad, he wonders whether it will ever move the needle on Bush's approval ratings, without asking the next question:

The war in Iraq seems to have taken a turn for the better and the opposition at home has failed in all efforts to impose its own strategy. North Korea is dismantling its nuclear program. The budget deficit is falling. A new attorney general has been confirmed despite objections from the left.

After more than two years of being buffeted by one political disaster after another, President Bush and his strategists think they may finally be getting back at least a bit of their footing. While still facing enormous challenges, from the crisis in Pakistan to the backlash over children's health care, they hope Bush has arrested his downward spiral and established a better foundation for the remainder of his time in office.

In many ways, the shifting political fortunes may owe as much to the absence of bad news as to any particular good news. No one lately has been indicted, botched a hurricane relief effort or shot someone in a hunting accident. Instead, pictures from Iraq show people returning to the streets as often as they show a new suicide bombing. And Bush has bolstered morale inside the West Wing and rallied his Republican base through a strategy of confrontation with the Democratic Congress, built on the expansive use of his veto pen.

Yet none of this has particularly impressed the public at large, which remains skeptical that anything meaningful has changed and still gives Bush record-low approval ratings. The disconnect highlights his dilemma heading into the last year of his administration: Can anything short of a profound event repair an unpopular president's public standing so late in his tenure? Can tactical victories in Washington salvage a wounded presidency?

Baker has the approval ratings correct. Rasmussen shows Bush's numbers drifting downwards over the past year, down seven points from last November's midterm election standings. They have remained in the same position since this summer, at least within the margin of error. Bush's approval ratings do not appear to be going anywhere.

However, the next question, which Baker doesn't ask, is how relevant those numbers can be at the moment. Bush won't run for office again, and his Vice-President will retire at the end of the term. In that sense, he is free from the worry about approval ratings, and can focus on his own priorities -- and clearly, that means stability and progress in Iraq and stopping the Iranians from developing a nuclear weapon.

Some might say that low approval numbers will keep him from being effective domestically. That certainly has not been the case. Democrats have been unable to override all but one of Bush's vetoes this year, and they have failed in every attempt to force a change of strategy in Iraq. Their one domestic victory, a minimum-wage increase which Bush did not oppose, came on a war-funding bill that gave Bush everything for which he'd asked.

So low approval ratings have hardly kept Bush from outplaying the Democrats. The ratings have not stripped him of his standing on foreign policy, either, as the Iranians and the North Koreans have discovered. The only relevance they appear to have is for national newspapers looking to report on conundrums that exist mostly within their own imaginations. If Bush continues to find these kinds of success, those numbers will rise on their own -- but clearly Bush is more concerned about the former than the latter.


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