Throughout 2003, we often heard that President Bush’s strong poll numbers, driven in part by our success in Iraq, didn’t mean much. After all, we were reminded, his father had even better numbers in 1991 after the first Gulf war, and look what happened to him. This wasn’t necessarily a bad cautionary tale, until the summer when the economy picked up. Since it was the troubled state of the economy in 1991 that sank the first President Bush, the analogy between the two presidencies seemed to lose its force when good economic news began to emerge.
In any case, tonight’s speech shows how far away from the 1992 scenario we now are. When the first Bush gave his State of the Union address that year, he was trailing both Perot and Clinton (if memory serves). The speech was regarded as almost a make-or-break event for Bush. It fell flat (though in fairness to Bush and his speechwriters, it’s difficult to pull off a boffo address when everyone thinks the country is in a recession).
Compare that speech with tonight’s powerful and confident presentation. This Bush went pretty from strength (military triumph) to strength (economic recovery), and concluded by outlining a domestic agenda that, for better or for worse, effectively conveys the unspoken message, “I care.” Rocket Man is right, strength and sincerity make a powerful combination. The election is not yet won, but this year looks nothing like 1992.
CORRECTION: Reader Joshua Sharf tells me that my memory, “while quite accurate on the subject of forgotten Redskins’ coaches, has failed [me] on the 1992 political season.” Sharf went back to check the January 1992 polls. He found that Bush gave his State of the Union speech “still [well] ahead, but fading as the nation focused on the ‘recession.'” Sorry about the error.
I still say that this year looks nothing like 1992, though. The first Bush faced fairly tough opposition in the New Hampshire primary (it may have been held a bit later than this year’s, but came roughly at the same point in the political season). And it can’t have been long after the SOU speech that Perot jumped in, Clinton emerged from the pack, and Bush’s numbers got very bad. (I’ve asked Mr. Sharf to check my memory on this. If I’m wrong again, I may have to confine myself to writing about sports and pre-1980 politics).
UPDATE: The excellent Mr. Sharf informs me that Perot entered the race in March 1992, and the polls immediately confirmed that President Bush was in trouble. His job approval rating was 40 percent, and his numbers in the three-way polling were only marginally better. It will be interesting to see where this Bush stands at the end of March. One thing seems clear — if there’s a three-way race looming the third guy will be coming at Bush from the angry left (Howard Dean, maybe) not Perot’s angry center.
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