The Washington Times
During the closing years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, from the time the story of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky broke, the presidential job-approval rating in the polls became, seemingly, all-important. Although Americans were inclined to disapprove of Mr. Clinton personally, they kept support levels for his performance in office fairly high. This is turn served as the principal bulwark against those who thought he ought to pay the price of the presidency for lying under oath about his relations with Miss Lewinsky.
But is job approval all? That’s the question that the closing years of the Bush administration are likely to address.
I take it for granted that neither Mr. Bush himself nor any of his key advisers, especially Karl Rove, has any intention of spending the next two years with the hatches battened down, letting the storm run its course. True, Mr. Bush’s has been an extraordinarily ambitious presidency, both at home and abroad. Some of his initiatives have been successful, some have not, and in some cases the work is still in progress. There is surely enough red meat from this presidency for historians to chew on already; no one could accuse the American government in this period of lacking energy in the executive.
Nevertheless, it seems highly unlikely that anyone inside the administration is going to propose running out the clock. In the first place, Mr. Bush has demonstrated that he likes action — the bigger the better. We have his famous disparagement of policy initiatives not worth the time of the president as “small ball.” There is also his willingness to put his own political position at risk. His commitment to Iraq and the war on terror are examples of this, but in a way, his campaign for Social Security reform is a better illustration.
He didn’t have to spend the better part of a year on a failing project; he could have moved on. Was this simple stubbornness? A false sense, borne of life in the presidential bubble, that reform was within reach up until the end? Or was it, rather, a product of a willingness to fail but not for lack of trying? Mr. Bush said that he intended to “spend” the political capital he gained with his re-election. So he did. He didn’t get the reform he sought, but his failure was, in a way, not his own: What his effort exposed was the unwillingness of Congress to take on the issue under current circumstances.
Mr. Bush’s ambition has taken its toll on his job approval. He has set high expectations for himself. To attempt much and come up short seems to entail a higher political price than setting out minimal goals and achieving them — the distinguishing characteristic of the Clinton administration after the ambition of its first two years. Two years which, of course, helped lead to the Republican Party takeover of Congress in 1994.
What now? Well, this White House seems to have a pretty good understanding that a presidential legacy has two components: one a product of policy, the other of politics. It’s not enough to accomplish impressive achievements; successful presidents also strengthen the political position of their parties.
And here the question of job approval comes to the fore again. To me, it has always been baffling why Democrats, post-1994, acquiesced to the Clintonian view that the success or failure of the Democratic party was all about Mr. Clinton himself. Admittedly, finding yourself in the minority in both chambers of Congress for the first time in 40 years was traumatic, and under such circumstances, one can imagine the appeal of Mr. Clinton’s essential message: that without him, the Democrats would have nothing.
But was the way back for Democrats really the cultivation of a high job-approval rating for Mr. Clinton personally? From the vantage point of 2006, it’s hard to see. Democrats have spent five years as out of power as possible. The life vest Mr. Clinton threw them was one that he took back when he left office. Shouldn’t Mr. Clinton have been willing to entertain a dip in his own approval ratings in order to improve the position of the party? Did anyone in his administration seriously consider what such a strategy would look like? Democrats seemed surprised to pick up seats in 1998, in defiance of the historical pattern for a president’s sixth year in office. Could a strategy premised on doing better have yielded better results?
Now, you could say that Mr. Bush has no choice but to throw himself into the political fray; he has no high approval ratings to protect. But that’s only partly true. Inaction is always an option. He could just as readily conclude that his approval ratings would be more likely to improve were he to act presidential, above the partisan combat.
But this would be a most unlikely course for him, both by temperament, and because, finally, he seems to understand that job approval is not the be-all and end-all, but rather an ephemeral measure that doesn’t necessarily tell us very much about presidential effectiveness in the broadest sense.