Friday, October 14, 2005

The Ultimate Popularity Contest

[[R A N K I N GS]] * In 1996, author and historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., acting on behalf of The New York Times Magazine, conducted a survey of U.S. presidential scholars to determine the success or failure of the nation’s top leaders. This followed a pattern of such assessments that originated with his father, Harvard professor Arthur M. Schlesinger. Because the survey was made at the beginning of Bill Clinton’s second term, it probably didn’t provide the scholars sufficient distance or perspective to judge his administration; he was ranked, along with presidents such as Ronald Reagan, Martin Van Buren, and Jimmy Carter, as “average.” (I suspect that Clinton’s ranking would be somewhat higher now, in comparison with his successor’s performance.) But the success or failure of other presidents was easier to gauge. Only three--Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and George Washington--were deemed “Great,” while more than twice that number suffered the label of “Failure”: Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, Warren G. Harding, Herbert Hoover, and Richard Nixon. All the rest fell between those polls of merit.

It could be quite interesting to see how a follow-up poll by Schlesinger (whose 88th birthday just happens to be today) would judge George W. Bush. Again, there might not yet be sufficient perspective possible. We find Bush currently at the lowest point of his White House occupancy, beset by scandals both within his administration and affecting his principal Republican allies on Capitol Hill; criticized for serial cronyism, corruption, and profligate spending; and under attack even by GOP stalwarts because of Harriet Miers’ nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. There might be opportunity still for Bush to make something more of his divisive presidency.

However, the general U.S. public seems to have no qualms about delivering early judgments on Bush’s place in history--and the outlook is not optimistic. “[F]or the first time since taking office in 2001, a plurality of Americans believe that George W. Bush will be viewed as an unsuccessful president,” reports the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Pew’s latest survey finds 41 percent of respondents insisting that “in the long run,” Bush will be considered a failure, up from 27 percent who had that same opinion last January. Only 26 percent believe Bush will be successful at his present job, down 10 points since January, while 30 percent contend it’s too early to make such an appraisal. (By comparison, 44 percent of Americans predicted in January 1999 that Clinton would be successful, while only 24 percent expected he would be unsuccessful.)

This poll also finds Bush with a 38 percent job approval rating, and 56 percent disapproving of his performance in the White House (consistent with other recent survey results; see here and here). On other issues, 53 percent say the U.S. military effort in Iraq is not going well (up from 44 percent last month); 66 percent contend that Bush’s decisions and policies have worsened the federal budget deficit, compared with just 6 percent who say he’s had a positive impact in that area; 41 percent of respondents maintain that Dubya has had a negative affect on U.S. politics and the way government works in Washington, D.C.; and looking ahead to the 2008 presidential election, 69 percent of those polled by the Pew Center say they want the Oval Office keys to go to a candidate “who offers different policies from the Bush administration rather than one offering programs similar to the Bush administration’s.” (Again for comparison sake, in June 2000, as the Clinton administration was winding down, a smaller percentage of citizens--52 percent--said they wanted a change of course in the White House.)

Finally, pundits--both the professional and the armchair sort--who think they spot in the present GOP troubles shades of what Democrats went through in the run-up to the midterm elections of 1994 (when Republicans took control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years) may find their views justified by the Pew survey. It shows that more Americans (40 percent) see the Democratic Party as governing in an honest and ethical way than have that same trust in the Republican Party (30 percent). As Pew notes, “This represents the largest Democratic advantage on this measure since the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994. ... The Democratic Party continues to be seen as concerned with the needs of the disadvantaged and average Americans. Democrats also maintain a sizable advantage as the party that can bring about needed change. A solid majority views the Republican Party as concerned with business interests.”

Will today’s administration scandals and increasing public skepticism about the direction in which Republicans are steering the United States help ensure Bush’s place on the Schlesinger scale beside underachievers such as Harding, Nixon, Millard Fillmore, and Calvin Coolidge? Or might he ultimately wind up in the middle of the spectrum somewhere, rubbing elbows with Rutherford B. Hayes and William Howard Taft, or--less likely every day--on a slightly higher rung with Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson? That question can only be left, for the time being, to educated guesswork and soothsayers of dubious stripe. But it certainly seems time for Schlesinger to begin dusting off his survey methodology for a crack at the question: Will history remember George W. Bush as a leader or a letdown?

READ MORE:How the Republicans Let It Slip Away,” by David Ignatius (The Washington Post); “Republican Economic Policies are Shifting Working Class Voters to Democrats,” by Chris Bowers (MyDD); “The Conservative Crack-Up,” by Howard Fineman (Newsweek); “As Karl Goes ...: If Rove Goes Down, Will the White House Completely Fall Apart?” by Michael Scherer (Salon); “What Will They Do Without Karl? If Bush’s Brain Is Removed, It’s Gonna Hurt,” by John Dickerson (Slate); “Questions of Character,” by Paul Krugman (The New York Times); “George W. Bush’s Suicidal Statecraft,” by Zbigniew Brzezinski (International Herald Tribune).

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