By Mark Mellman - 01/24/07 12:00 AM EST
As George Bush mounted the House rostrum to deliver his annual report on the state of our union, it was clear that the American people are giving up on him. Though still invested with the formal powers of the presidency, he has lost his most important power — the power to persuade. He can issue commands, but he cannot command respect. He can order, but he cannot inspire. He can compel action, but he cannot compel loyalty.
A leader bereft of followers, alone and isolated, he squandered his remaining credibility by stubbornly refusing to recognize what his generals, the American people, and a bipartisan majority of Congress have made clear — his Iraq policy has failed and simply adding a few more troops is more likely to make things worse than to salvage the situation.
Bush’s inability to persuade was on vivid display as he attempted to rally support for escalating the war. Despite the fact that the audience for his address was more Republican than the rest of the population, only 33 percent of those who heard the president’s rationale for the surge favored his approach. That is just 2 points higher than the support among those who watched sitcom reruns instead. After taking into account the Bush-friendly tendency of the audience, it appears that, other things being equal, those who heard the president’s case were less persuaded than those who did not. Since the speech, as the president has continued to press his argument, at least two polls show support for the surge declining further.
But President Bush’s problems are both much deeper and much broader than public rejection of a single initiative. Americans have lost all semblance of confidence in the president’s policies and in Bush the person.
On average, the most recent polls give him an approval rating of only 32 percent. That is just 8 points higher than Richard Nixon’s approval rating days before he resigned.
Today, a majority of Americans disapprove of the president’s performance on every single issue facing the country. Voters disapprove of his performance on the economy by an average of 22 points; they disapprove of his handling of global warming by 34 points. Nearly two-thirds disapprove of his overall handling of foreign policy. Even on his one-time signature issue, terrorism, voters disapprove of Bush’s policy by an 8-point margin.
Of course, Americans recognize the disaster that is Iraq. In 2004, a majority thought the invasion had been the right thing to do. Today just a third of Americans share that view. A mere 26 percent approve of Bush’s handling of Iraq.
The president’s fall from grace is not confined to the public policy arena. His personal image too has deteriorated dramatically. Once seen as a strong, competent leader of unquestioned integrity, today he is perceived as failed, weak and dishonest. Fifty-five percent count his presidency a failure, with just 39 percent willing to label it a success. By a 9-point margin, Americans say he is not a strong leader and by 19 points he is perceived as ineffective. A majority says he is less trustworthy than previous presidents and by a 17-point margin voters say he is not honest. Despite having an image forged in the crucible of Sept. 11, just 42 percent would trust him in a crisis today.
Voters no longer look to this president for national leadership. Only 25 percent want the country to tread the path Bush is laying out, while 57 percent prefer we follow the course being charted by Democrats.
In short, while Bush holds the office of the presidency, he has lost the attributes of leadership — a perilous state for our union.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.