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The Bush story the press won't tell
Media Matters
Eric Boehlert
September 19, 2006

Despite the obvious signs it exists -- and has for nearly 20 months -- the pervasive buyer's remorse that hovers around President Bush's second term, as measured by public opinion polls, remains off limits for the press. The topic is all but banned from polite discussion among elite Beltway press players who seem to be deeply invested in the success of the Bush administration.

The issue of buyer's remorse is directly connected to a larger, twofold problem surrounding the ongoing coverage of Bush's polling numbers. First, there's developed a pervasive press obsession with trying to be the first to document Bush's rebound in the polls. (It stands in stark contrast to the press conduct during President Clinton's second term when reporters and pundits were forever hunting, unsuccessfully, for evidence that Clinton's popularity was slipping.)

Secondly, and just as disturbing, is the categorical refusal by the press to put Bush's consistently dreadful poll numbers into any kind of historical context. The fact that Bush has been bogged down for much of this year with poll numbers in the 30's is nothing short of astonishing. In the last half-century, the only other comparable second-term collapse belonged to Richard Nixon, whose fall, of course, was fueled by the revelation that a criminal enterprise had been operating from inside the Oval Office. Yet Bush's second-term performance is rarely mentioned in the same breath as Nixon's.

Quite the contrary, despite historic dissatisfaction with Bush, the press continues to depict him as the central, charging force in American politics, while setting aside all sorts of time and energy trying to document Bush's (we're told) inevitable rebound.

The White House's recently orchestrated 9-11 PR blitz, a calculated effort to elevate the issues of national security for the Republicans' midterm elections, simply illustrated the unfortunate trend. Just look at Thursday's Page 1 Wall Street Journal piece.

Headline: "Bush Gets a Lift From Emphasis On Terror, Iraq."

Opening: "President Bush's effort to explain and win support for his policies on Iraq and terrorism appear to be paying some initial dividends as midterm congressional campaigns heat up."

But the article itself cited no evidence -- none -- to support the first-sentence assertion that Bush's speeches had won him "support for policies on Iraq."

Additionally, straining hard to justify its "Lift" headline on A1, the paper published a page-one graphic that charted the bounce for Bush. But the five-point gain the Journal highlighted occurred between June and September. Between July and September (the Journal did not poll during August), when Bush emphasized terror and Iraq, his "bounce" was a minuscule 3 points -- within the survey's margin of error.

I understand the Journal, like all major news outlets, spends a lot of money on its polls and wants to promote the results (i.e., get its money's worth). But if you're guessing The Wall Street Journal never published a Page 1 piece during the Clinton years to announce the president's approval ratings had inched up three points over two months, then we think alike.

The Journal has hardly been alone in straining to push a Bush-is-back angle. On Monday, The Boston Globe published the GOP-friendly article, " 9/11 anniversary events boost White House," which cited two polls published last week that put Bush's job approval rating at 42 percent. Later in the piece, the Globe quoted pollster Andrew Kohut, president of Pew Research Center, yet the Globe noticeably omitted any reference to a new Pew poll that put Bush's rating at a dismal -- and unchanged -- 37 percent. The Globe, eager to write up Bush's' rebound, simply ignored any evidence to the contrary. (On Monday, ABC's The Note, a driving force in propping up the recent Bush-is-back press narrative, actually singled out the Globe journalist who wrote the misleading article as being "brilliant" and "ahead of the curve." That's how the press game works inside the Beltway; write something misleading that boosts Bush, and you're singled out for praise by your peers.)

Even if all the hopeful, GOP-fed chatter about a bounce were to hold true, it would mean the president would likely end the year right where he started it; around 42 percent. There's not a single White House aid or Republican campaign consultant who in January would have been happy with the president treading water for the entire year. But that's exactly what he's done and the press, unburdened by any historical context, now treats that like an emerging success story.

Just look at the all the press attention paid to Tuesday's Gallup poll showing Bush climbing up to a 44-percent approval rating. In any other recent administration, that kind of rating would be cause for embarrassment. But the media rules are different for Bush. Also note that last week's Pew poll showing Bush stuck at 37 percent received very little coverage. That's because for the Beltway press corps, evidence that Bush-is-back means big news, while evidence that Bush-is-still-down does not.

Of course, we've seen this gentle treatment before. At the time of Bush's second inauguration the polite Beltway press corps was careful not to dwell on the fact that Bush stood as the least popular modern day president ever to be sworn into office. That's when the first, unmistakable signs of buyer's remorse were plain for everyone to see. But the press played dumb and turned away.

Rather than dwelling on Bush's downward spiral through 2005 and into 2006, the press seemed more anxious in tracking his possible comeback. Last January Time's Mike Allen got a quick jump on the Bush-is-back competition, announcing that the president had "found his voice" and that relieved White House aides "were smiling again" after a turbulent 2005. Of course, in the weeks following Allen's insight, Bush proceeded to plummet to new career lows in the polls.

In mid-June news came that terrorist chief Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had been killed, Karl Rove had escaped criminal prosecution in connection with the CIA leak investigation, and Bush had sprinted over to Baghdad for a five-hour stop over. (Or, a "dramatic lightning visit," as UPI described it.) The spin surrounding Bush's resurgence grew so loud it was difficult to tell who was more energized, the White House or the reporters who cover it. ABC News went so far as to report, "This may have been the president's best week ever." [Emphasis added.]

In truth, the much-hyped June bounce was all but non-existent. From mid-June -- the time of Bush's "best week ever" -- to early July, the Fox News poll had Bush's job approval rating going from 40 down to 36, NBC/Wall Street Journal had it going from 40 down to 39, Hotline from 41 down to 38, CNN from 37 to 40, USA Today from 37 to 40, Time from 35 to 35, and Pew from 36 to 36.

But set aside for a moment whether Bush's bounces were real or not. The real question is, where is the context? Why does the press uniformly report on Bush's public standing as if it existed in a vacuum, as if there weren't modern polling data from the last 70 years to compare and contrast it with? Why, for instance, is there virtually no mention of the fact that Bush is currently running between 20 and 30 points behind where his predecessor was during his sixth year in office?

The press' clear reluctance to tackle the topic simply feeds into the right-wing campaign under way that all presidents at one time or another suffer minuscule approval ratings, so Bush's downturn is no big deal. In June, Rush Limbaugh misled listeners by insisting, "If you went back and looked at several other second-term presidents at this time in their terms, you'd find almost parallel poll results. We know that Bill Clinton was down in the 20s at one point. Jimmy Carter was way down. Reagan was down. This is really -- really not unique."

A: Jimmy Carter was not a "second-term president." And B: Neither Reagan nor Clinton in their second term came anywhere near the kind of anemic poll numbers Bush has accumulated this year. But because the press has consistently refused to treat Bush's 2006 poll collapse as dramatic or historic, Limbaugh and others on the right are able to shrug it off as nothing "unique."

Here then, is some much-needed historical perspective to put Bush's standing in context:

  • According to Gallup, on the eve of President John F. Kennedy's 1963 assassination, he was suffering the worst job-approval ratings of his presidency -- 58 percent.
  • In 1968, when the war in Vietnam was claiming hundreds of U.S. casualties each week, President Lyndon Johnson was considered so unpopular that he didn't even run for re-election. Johnson's average Gallup approval rating for that year was 43 percent.
  • When Reagan's second term was rocked by the Iran-Contra scandal, his ratings plummeted, all the way down to 43 percent.
  • This year, according to the Gallup numbers, Bush has averaged an approval rating of 37 percent.

Bush's dismal ratings put him well within range of the country's recent failed presidencies, like the one of his father, Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon. That's the historical company Bush keeps, although you'd never know that from journalists who refuse to connect the dots and refuse to treat Bush's second term as the failure that a majority of Americans say it is.

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