Reality trumps public opinion

In a front page story in today’s Washington Post, Peter Baker acknowledges that although the Bush administration is making advances in Iraq and elsewhere, the president’s approval ratings have not improved appreciably. I don’t think there’s much of a mystery here. Most people believe one or both of these two propositions: (1) we shouldn’t have gone to war in Iraq and (2) the administration badly mishandled the war for at least several years. Under these circumstances, even those who have received (and believe) word that things are improving in Iraq are unlikely to think kindly of President Bush. That’s not to say that Bush won’t eventually see an improvement in his approval rating; indeed, I believe that if the economy holds together, he will. But I don’t expect anything very dramatic.
The real point, though, is that Bush’s approval rating doesn’t matter much. The president’s concerns are with his legacy and, relatedly, being able to see our effort in Iraq through. His approval ratings over the next year will have virtually no impact on how history judges him. And the improved situation in Iraq has bought Bush the ability, for now, to pursue his policy there regardless of how the public judges him. Finally, the president’s lack of popularity has not deprived him of the ability to hold the Republican congressional delegation together sufficiently to prevent the enactment of legislation he disapproves of.
The president’s unpopularity could hinder the Republican presidential nominee in 2008. But if, as I have suggested, that unpopularity represents the carryover effect Bush’s old policies (the invasion of Iraq, the Rumsfeld era military strategy there, the response to Hurricane Katrina), then it may not do much harm to a Republican candidate who is not closely associated with the president. No one in the Republican field is closely associated with the president.
Baker goes on to suggest that “the shifting political fortunes may owe as much to the absence of bad news as to any particular good news.” He adds that “no one lately has been indicted, botched a hurricane relief effort or shot someone in a hunting accident.” Apparently Baker does not consider it “particular good news” that al Qaeda has been routed in Iraq, the local Sunni population having turned decisively against it . One might also ask, what particular good news fueled President Clinton’s popularity amidst the far more numerous indictments that plagued his administration? Nothing I can recall other than a strong economy.
Sort of like the one we have now.
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