Danger of an unpopular president

One of my favorite Washington stories concerns Gordon Liddy, infamous for leading the Watergate burglary. A tough ex-FBI agent charged with plugging leaks by the Nixon White House, Liddy, imitating T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), was said to have placed his hand in a candle flame at a party, holding it there until his flesh burned. Puzzled onlookers asked, “What’s the trick?” to which Liddy replied, “The trick is, I don’t care.”

That story comes to mind whenever I think about President Bush these days. With his approval rating having plummeted to a level just above where Nixon’s was the day he resigned, a good deal of Bush’s behavior could be explained by starting from the premise that he no longer cares about the public’s views of him or his policies. Voters’ esteem for the president is so low that it can hardly get any worse. And if things can get neither worse nor better, why react to the political pain inflicted by public opinion?

The country sent the president an unmistakable electoral message in 2006, demanding a change of course in Iraq, but what more happens to Bush when he ignores it? So his approval rating drops from 32 to 28 percent. Big deal. The president no longer cares.

Senators of both parties repudiate his attorney general. So what? Why should the president care? At this stage, how many more points can he lose?

Like Janis Joplin’s Bobby McGee, Bush’s complete freedom of action stems from the fact that he has “nothing left to lose” — at least nothing in terms of voters’ current evaluations.

Ironically, if the president’s approval rating was at 40 or 45 percent, he might be much more responsive to the expressed will of the people. Then there would be something at stake. Back at 45 percent, there was something left to lose.

In 2003, with his approval rating falling into the 60s, and facing reelection, Bush felt compelled to reverse decades of Republican opposition to healthcare reform in adopting a modicum of prescription drug coverage. Now the president is unconcerned about public opinion because the public’s view cannot deteriorate any further; nor will it improve dramatically without concomitantly significant improvements in real-world circumstances.

There is a lesson here for those members of the chattering classes who constantly pine for a president who just does what he (or someday she) thinks is right, without regard to public opinion. Be careful what you wish for. In George Bush, their dreams have been realized, but they have awoken to a nightmare. Indeed, George Bush demonstrates the danger of a president unconstrained by public opinion.

Too often these chatterers really mean that the president should do what they believe is right regardless of what others think. Their pious appeals for “real leadership” are mere platitudes masking a desire for leaders who agree with them, even when the majority does not.

Of course, slavish devotion to the will of the majority should not be our loftiest aim. True leaders strike a balance. We do not want them to avoid doing what is right merely because it is unpopular; but we also do not want our presidents to be completely insulated from public opinion.

In a democracy, public policy should be at least loosely tethered to public opinion. As the Maltese mathematician Alastair Farrugia wrote, “Freedom is when the people can speak, democracy is when the government listens.”

As George Bush’s second term so vividly illustrates, when elected officials stop listening, stop caring about the views of their constituents, when they have nothing left to lose, the result may not be bold leadership but catastrophic stubbornness.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.