By Kathy Frankovic, CBS News director of surveys
Can the President rebound?
President Bush's approval ratings have fallen to new lows in nearly every poll conducted in the last two weeks. The CBS News Poll reported June 29 showed only 27 percent approving of the way the president was handling his job. Newsweek's report was even lower, at 26 percent. NBC News and The Wall St. Journal was at 29 percent. Fox News (which interviews only registered voters), was slightly higher at 31 percent, but that too was that poll's all-time low.
The war in Iraq is the principal cause of the president's problems, of course, and the defeat of the major legislation on immigration reform doesn't help. That was a good example of how framing an issue matters. Half of those who opposed the bill actually were in favor of some pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Just 6 percent of Democrats and just 18 percent of independents now approve of the way the president is handling his job. And although 66 percent of Republicans still approve, that figure used to be closer to 90 percent.
Many Republicans have real concerns about the country – 52 percent of them think it's headed in the wrong direction. Fifty-seven percent don't think the U.S. is respected in the world. Although 42 percent think the surge of troops in Iraq is making things better (about four times as many as the number of non-Republicans who think so), 46 percent don't see things there getting better.
The failed immigration reform bill separates Republicans from the president, too. By more than three to one, Republicans opposed that legislation, rather sizable opposition from rank and file members of a president's party.
The president's strongest issue has always been terrorism. The response to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks brought his approval ratings (which were just above 50 percent before the attacks) close to 90 percent.
In the last few days there have been two attempted terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow, a rise in the terror level in the U.K., and increased security procedures at U.S. airports. Could this help the president? There is no indication that what happens in other countries results in big jumps in approval. Both before and after the March 11, 2004 attacks in Spain the president's approval rating was about 50 percent. Before and after the July 7, 2005 attacks in London, it hovered around 45 percent. Of course today's ratings are much lower.
Presidents can rebound. There can be a "rallying point." In his 1973 book Wars, Presidents and Public Opinion, John Mueller studied presidential approval ratings. Simply stated, he found three key factors. First is length of time in office; approval usually goes down the longer a president serves, as whatever he does alienates someone. Second is the economy, which can either help or hurt. And third is long-term war, especially American casualties, which reduces approval..
Mueller also identified what he called "rally points," which can bump up approval ratings, at least for a while. This president's biggest rally point occurred after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. His support also rose (less dramatically) at the start of the Iraq war in 2003. It declined (as Mueller predicted) as that war went on. Most rally points involve foreign threat or action – like George H.W. Bush and the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Ronald Reagan and the invasion of Grenada in 1983, and even Jimmy Carter and the seizure of American hostages in Iran in 1979. There are also "rally points" when the presidency, though certainly not the nation, has been in crisis. The best example of that was when Bill Clinton's lagging approval rating rose above 60 percent after reports of his entanglement with Monica Lewinsky surfaced in 1998.
Mueller also notes that sometimes opinions are too fixed to change. For example, once opinions about the war in Vietnam hardened, there was little that Lyndon Johnson could do to change that – or to help his sagging approval ratings. There is no doubt that opinions about the war in Iraq have also hardened, even among Republicans, as only a bare majority of Republicans – 52 percent – still say that the war is going well. Overwhelming majorities of the rest of the public say it is not. (You can see what Mueller had to say about the war in Iraq in 2005.)
As for the war on terror, just 39 percent approve of the way the president is handling it, the lowest figure yet.
The president will have to gain back Republicans first and then reach out. Perhaps that was one reason for the commutation of Vice President Dick Cheney's former top aide "Scooter" Libby's prison sentence (although no public polls found that rank and file Republicans were demanding a pardon). The next round of polls – probably to be conducted after the July Fourth holiday – will tell. But the past doesn't suggest that things will change quickly.
By Kathy Frankovic