By Mark Mellman - 06/21/06 12:00 AM EDT
Sometimes your best just isn’t good enough. No matter how well I do, for instance, I will never get near a 9.4-second 100-yard dash.
President Bush has been crowing about his string of “successes” — Zarqawi killed, a cabinet completed in Iraq and a surprise visit to Baghdad. Trying to talk the president’s numbers up, the White House hailed it as Bush’s best week ever.
However, when the outsized claims rendezvoused with reality, in the form of this week’s polls, we saw an emperor without clothes: While it may have been the president’s “best week,” it was not sufficient enough to improve his position in any meaningful way.
The administration’s goal is clear: Raise the president’s approval rating while lightening the burden Republicans are carrying in the form of the Iraq war. With each passing week, it becomes increasingly evident that the tools available to the administration are not commensurate with the task.
How much impact did this allegedly golden week have?
The president’s approval rating may have inched up a bit, from incredibly low to extremely low. CNN’s poll, along with one sponsored by NBC and The Wall Street Journal, found a whopping one-point increase in Bush’s approval rating. CBS reported a two-point decline, while Gallup and Fox suggested a five-point increase. It is not clear that these changes are statistically significant, but it is evident they are not substantively meaningful. Only Fox has Bush getting to 40 percent. His average approval rating after his “best” week was less than 37 percent.
Even if it has gone up two or three points, the fact is the president remains badly damaged. Clinton and Reagan were at 60 percent at this point in their tenures. In June 1966, Lyndon Johnson had an approval rating over 10 points higher than Bush’s. He went on to lose 48 House seats that fall.
Perhaps Bush’s overall rating has not budged quite yet, the White House will claim, but surely, the week sent an important message about Iraq. Hardly.
The NBC-Wall Street Journal poll showed a mere two-point increase in those approving of Bush’s handling of Iraq — from 33 to 35 percent. CBS began at a lower level (31 percent) but also recorded just a two-point jump. USA Today’s Gallup poll indicated a four-point increase (to 36 percent), while CNN measured a five-point upswing. At best, this best of weeks left 36 percent approving of the way Bush is handling Iraq. At the time of the last presidential election, 45-47 percent approved of the way Bush was dealing with Iraq. In dramatic contrast to 2004, more people now trust Democrats than Republicans to deal with Iraq.
The president made no dent in the now consistent majority who regard the war as a mistake. In the wake of Bush’s winning week, only 40 percent thought the war was “worth it,” unchanged from two months earlier. CNN found just 42 percent saying the war was not a mistake, up a mere two points.
Negative views of the president and his Iraq policy are now deeply ingrained. Changing those attitudes will require a major change in policy.
Bush has only one arrow left in his quiver: to begin withdrawing troops. A few months ago, this seemed the likeliest scenario. However, the president just ordered an additional 1,500 troops into Iraq while talking about the need to stay the course. In the wake of those events, a withdrawal now would be nothing but craven politics.
So, before pundits go handing out plaudits, it’s worth waiting for the results. Would folks have been commenting on Bush’s “best week” had they known it would have no impact on the polls?
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.