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The worm turns

One can forgive White House strategists for feeling whipsawed right now. The articles proclaiming their genius are still coming back from the framers and being mounted on office walls, but suddenly everything they touch seems to turn, how shall I say it — to manure. Nominations are in trouble, opposition to the president’s Social Security plan is building and doubts are being expressed about the nuclear option.

One can forgive White House strategists for feeling whipsawed right now. The articles proclaiming their genius are still coming back from the framers and being mounted on office walls, but suddenly everything they touch seems to turn, how shall I say it — to manure. Nominations are in trouble, opposition to the president’s Social Security plan is building and doubts are being expressed about the nuclear option.

To understand the present predicament, one can pull two classics off the bookshelf. First is presidential scholar Richard Neustadt’s analysis that reminds us that a president’s chief power is the power to persuade and his primary weapon is his approval rating. The second volume is Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

“Opportunities multiply as they are seized,” the strategist wrote. Commentators can argue about just how much seizing Democrats have done, but a corollary to this law is clearly at work. It might be stated this way: “Weakness begets weakness. Screw-up begets screw-up. Failure begets failure.” In short, once a downward spiral begins, it’s difficult to halt.

A combination of bad circumstances and worse decisions has lowered the president’s approval rating, diminished his power to persuade and begun a downward spiral.

The economy and Iraq highlight the circumstances.

Public evaluations of the economy are at their worst point since 2003 — 10 to 20 points worse than they were last fall, as Election Day approached. High gas prices, felt as a hardship by two-thirds of households, create the perception, and the reality, of a deteriorating economy. As a result, fewer people now approve of Bush’s handling of the economy than at any point in his presidency.

Meanwhile, we continue to suffer the consequences of Bush’s failure to develop a postwar plan for Iraq. Hoped-for progress has failed to materialize. Indeed, the situation seems to be unraveling anew. Increasingly well-coordinated violence and an apparently impotent new government have left a majority of Americans saying the war was not worth it — a reversal from most of last year.

Into that matrix of problems come two vexing presidential decisions.

This column predicted months ago that a Social Security plan that cut benefits and added billions to the deficit had no chance of garnering public support. It hasn’t. The more the people know, the less they like it. While small majorities once favored it, large majorities now oppose it. The president has even failed to persuade voters that the problems facing the program now are worse than in the past.

The spectacular overreach on the Schiavo case, repudiated by the vast majority of Americans, was a similarly bad decision.

All that has left George Bush with an approval rating below 50 percent, lower than that of any other president at a comparable point. That weakness puts his whole agenda at risk. As serious as Bolton’s own problems are, it is hard to imagine a president with a 60 percent approval rating being denied his choice for U.N. ambassador by his own party. Bush’s low approval ratings, combined with public opposition, make it exceedingly unlikely his Social Security plan will ever be enacted.

Republicans now face another fateful decision: whether to deploy the nuclear option. Every poll reveals large majorities opposed to this Republican plot. Only 26 percent in the ABC News/Washington Post poll support a Senate rules change to make it easier to confirm the president’s judicial nominees.

If Republicans go nuclear, it will be from a position of weakness and with no public support. Yet another in a string of bad decisions will deepen the downward spiral. A Republican Party already at odds with the American people, led by an unpopular president, flouting the public will by overturning 200 years of precedent find the next two years pretty rough.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) last year.

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