Bush might reach for a banjo

It’s no secret that President Bush’s negative ratings have reached record highs. In the last few weeks, polls from CNN/USA Today/Gallup, AP-Ipsos, and ABC/Washington Post have all shown 60 percent or more of Americans disapproving of how the president is handling his job. What’s a better kept secret is how the president and his closest advisers are dealing with all this.

It’s no secret that President Bush’s negative ratings have reached record highs. In the last few weeks, polls from CNN/USA Today/Gallup, AP-Ipsos, and ABC/Washington Post have all shown 60 percent or more of Americans disapproving of how the president is handling his job. What’s a better kept secret is how the president and his closest advisers are dealing with all this.

It would be easy to act unconcerned about the polls. One could even take the principled stance that the president and his advisers shouldn’t even read polls. They should be paying attention to the execution of his duties, it would be argued, and the polls will take care of themselves. Observing the current climate, I’m not so sure of that. There is a scapegoating and bullying quality to public opinion today that often seems detached from reality. To be sure, the president isn’t handling his job today so much worse than in the spring of 2003 — just over two years ago — when Bush’s disapproval ratings were less than half of what they are today.

The Bush White House shouldn’t shrug off the latest negative poll numbers. To do so would seriously imperil the administration’s political prospects for legislative and diplomatic successes in his remaining years in office. It’s important that the administration attacks this matter with some urgency. Time is on the side of those who scapegoat and bully. If they keep it up for long enough, the mud will stick and even start to harden. Then it becomes all that much more difficult to reverse opinions.

Like anyone being bullied, Bush must respond or it will only get worse. Psychologists have identified many sound strategies for handling cases of scapegoating, abuse or bullying. One of these strategies is, in fact, to take a stand against the offense. Supporters of the president need to criticize these crazy poll results. But that’s like attacking the public, you say, and will simply make matters worse. Perhaps in the short term it might make matters worse, but unless someone protests the lunacy of Bush’s 60 percent disapproval numbers, no one is ever likely to reconsider their views. Some Americans have fallen into the trap of Bush-bashing and are no better off for it. If they can be challenged to throw off the burden they are placing on themselves by this sour attitude, they will be relieved of considerable anger, anxiety and even depression. Free from imagining that Bush is the cause of everything bad in their lives, they can start making some progress toward happiness and contentment.

Beyond the psychodynamics of Bush’s recovery strategy, there are some good old-fashioned techniques of politicians and campaign consultants that can change public opinion. I have long noted the efficacy of children and dogs in political ads, especially in a negative campaign. It’s hard to hate a candidate standing next to a kid or pet. Get Barney and Willy in the picture, Mr. President.

I have also observed through the years that being close to people makes a difference. Even if voters have heard all manner of evil about a candidate, if they meet him and visit personally for even a short period, their negativity subsides. In focus grouped tests of television ads for campaigns, I have seen how very close and tight shots of a candidate’s face seem to remove uncertainty and doubt. A voter once told me, “A dishonest man wouldn’t let a camera get that close.”

Comedian Steve Martin once suggested that Nixon could have even survived Watergate with a little effort. “I think the banjo is the one thing that could have saved him,” he said in jest. But there is some truth in that old joke. A little self-deprecating humor followed by a little “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” could bring a smile or two to the faces of some Americans who need some kind of opening to reconsider this president in a new light.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.