What's Behind Bush's Sagging Poll Numbers

Judging by the numbers, last week wasn't a good week for George W. Bush. Of course, news that the administration had approved a deal to turn over the operation of six U.S. ports to a company owned by the United Arab Emirates did nothing to buoy his sagging approval ratings. But the truly damaging revelation, from a public relations perspective, was the admission by White House press secretary Scott McClellan that the president didn't even know about the deal until after it had appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the country. That shocked even many Republican loyalists.

The problem for Bush is a growing perception that he simply isn't competent. That's the story behind the polling numbers that have declined -- bad week by bad week -- since February 2005 when the president's approval rating stood at a respectable 52 percent. The predecessor whom Bush has begun to resemble isn't, as many liberal Democrats seem to believe, Richard Nixon. It's Jimmy Carter. Carter's political demise began when the American people, including many Democrats, started to perceive him as in over his head in the Oval Office. That's what may be happening now to Bush.

Competence is not a partisan issue. Last week's polls found that somewhere between 34 and 40 percent of Americans approved of Bush's job performance. That is discouraging enough. But for Bush and his political advisers what may be more disturbing is the fact that his approval rating among Republicans had fallen to 72 percent, 10 to 15 percentage points lower than the president's previous level of support from his party's voters. It's a sign that even supporters are beginning to question Bush's effectiveness.

To a greater extent than any modern president, Bush has been a divider, inspiring intense support from his party's conservative base and intense opposition from liberals and Democrats. That's the way his presidency began, and that's the way it's been through most of his five-plus years in office.

The real aberration in Bush's job-approval record was the long honeymoon that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Americans of all political stripes rallied behind the Republican president. His approval ratings stayed above 80 percent for the six months following Sept. 11 and remained in the upper-60s as late as November 2002, to the benefit of Republican House and Senate candidates in the midterm elections. That represented the biggest and longest-lasting rally behind a U.S. president in the history of public opinion polling. But by November 2003, partisan polarization had returned with a vengeance.

That polarization was clearly evident in the 2004 election results. Forty-seven states and the District of Columbia voted the way they had four years earlier. Only three small battleground states changed sides, with Iowa and New Mexico switching from Vice President Al Gore in 2000 to Bush in 2004, and New Hampshire switching from Bush in 2000 to Senator John Kerry in 2004. According to the exit polls, more than 90 percent of Republicans voted for Bush and nearly 90 percent of Democrats voted for Kerry, with independents splitting almost right down the middle.

The incumbent's campaign strategy in 2004, devised and implemented by his longtime political guru Karl Rove, was based on one simple idea: Mobilize the base. It worked, just barely. The Republicans succeeded in mobilizing their base but so did the Democrats. Bush won the 2004 election by the narrowest margin of any re-elected president in the past century.

Until recently, though, it seemed that no matter what happened, Bush could count on solid support from the Republican base and, with it, solid support from Republicans in the House and Senate. That's until he decided to nominate his close adviser Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, creating significant cracks in the Republican base -- and raising the competence issue, at least temporarily. A quick withdrawal of Miers' nomination and her replacement by Samuel Alito, an experienced jurist with impeccable conservative credentials, seemed to repair the damage.

While escalating violence in Iraq, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the investigation into the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame and Hurricane Katrina damaged the president's standing among Democrats and independents, his support from his fellow Republicans remained largely intact -- until the ports deal was announced.

What makes this issue so dangerous for the White House? After all, the company involved in the takeover has a track record of successfully operating major ports around the world, the government of the United Arab Emirates has been cooperating with the United States since Sept. 11, and the six U.S. ports in question were already being operated by a foreign company, albeit one based in Britain.

Part of the answer is that, regardless of the merits of the case, the takeover is just plain unpopular -- with Republicans and independents as well as Democrats. According to last week's CBS News poll, 58 percent of Republicans along with 71 percent of independents and 78 percent of Democrats oppose the takeover.

Even more significantly, the way the port takeover was handled reinforced a growing impression among the public that nobody is really in charge in the Bush White House. How could the president not even have been consulted on an issue directly involving national security, Bush's strong suit in the minds of most Americans and especially most Republicans? The night after the story broke, comedian Jay Leno joked, "Do you know who's in charge of U.S. ports? Neither does President Bush.'" For congressional Republicans like Representative Peter King, the port controversy provided a golden opportunity to distance themselves from the White House, and many of them jumped at the chance. And this revolt may not be as easy to quell as the Miers rebellion. The request by Dubai Ports World to delay the takeover for 45 days may simply have put off the inevitable confrontation between the president and Congress.

Unlike the president, congressional Republicans have to face the voters this November. Even though most represent safe Republican districts, only six Senate seats and 16 House seats would have to change hands to give Democrats control of Congress, and there is growing concern among Republicans that they could lose their grip on both chambers if the midterm election turns into a referendum on a president with approval ratings in the thirties or worse.

The risk for the White House is that a revolt by House and Senate Republicans could further undermine the president's standing among Republican voters, leading to a vicious cycle of declining popularity and declining congressional support.

It is probably too late for Bush to salvage any of his major domestic policy initiatives. Tax reform and Social Security reform have already been abandoned and health care savings accounts appear to be dead in the water. But if the president loses the confidence of Republicans, his effectiveness in foreign affairs may also be compromised. And with the nation facing a continuing threat from al-Qaida as well as major challenges in the Middle East and elsewhere, a rerun of the Carter presidency is not in anyone's interest. In dangerous times, Americans of all parties place a high value on competence.

Alan Abramowitz is a professor of political science at Emory University. He contributed this comment to The Washington Post.