The past month has been difficult for U.S. President George W. Bush. First, his former chief counterterrorism adviser declared in a book and in public testimony that the White House was not as concerned about the threat of Al-Qaeda as Bush says it was. Testimony by others to a special panel investigating the attacks of 11 September 2001, also portrayed an administration ill prepared to prevent the killings on that day. And now U.S. forces in Iraq are experiencing their deadliest month since the war began there 13 months ago. Yet recent polls show the president's approval ratings rising, not falling.
Washington, 22 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The news for U.S. President George W. Bush has not been favorable lately.
First, last month, there was Richard Clarke, Bush's former counterterrorism coordinator, speaking on the popular U.S. television news program "60 Minutes.”
"I find it outrageous that the president [Bush] is running for re-election on the grounds that he has done such great things about terrorism,” Clarke said. “He ignored it. He ignored terrorism for months when maybe we could have done something to stop 9-11 [the 11 September attacks]."
Writing in his book, "Against All Enemies," and speaking before the 11 September commission, Clarke spoke highly critically about what he called the Bush administration's weak approach to terrorism.
Several other witnesses before the panel left an equally negative impression of Bush's preparedness. The White House tried hard to minimize the damage, but most analysts agreed that the effort was unsuccessful.
Next came bad news from Iraq, which Bush calls the primary front in his war on terrorism. At least 100 American soldiers have died during this month alone trying to put down uprisings in the central and southern parts of the country.
Yet in spite of the run of bad news lately, two major polls this week indicate the president's approval rating is rising, not falling.
Most polls had been showing Senator John Kerry (Democrat-Massachusetts), Bush's likely challenger in the 2 November election, leading Bush by a small margin. But a poll issued on 19 April by ABC News and "The Washington Post" found support for Bush among 48 percent of respondents, and only 43 percent for Kerry. A poll by CNN and the nationwide newspaper "USA Today" issued the same day had very similar results.
The polls may seem inconsistent with the recent bad news for Bush, but there are several reasons that Bush appears to be benefiting politically, at least for now, according to Alan Lichtman, a professor of history and politics at American University in Washington.
First, Lichtman tells RFE/RL that regardless of an American president's performance on security issues, he tends to get public support when security is threatened.
"Even though the news has not been good, it has focused public attention on matters of national security, and there has been a rally-around-the-president and a rally-around-the-flag effect," Lichtman said.
Lichtman adds that Kerry has made the mistake of not defining himself, and instead of allowing Bush to define him. He says Kerry appears to be listening too much to his advisers and not relying on his own political instincts that made him a strong presidential contestant in the first place.
Meanwhile, Lichtman says, throughout the month of March, Bush's re-election campaign spent a record amount of money, most of it on advertising that portrays Kerry as unsuitable for the White House. Kerry has only now begun to broadcast his own advertisements.
"I think right now the big Bush money advantage does make a difference,” Lichtman says. “He has spent $50 million to a great extent negatively portraying John Kerry as a 'waffler,' as out of step [part of the political fringe]. So right now, when people don't know much about John Kerry and Bush is spending all this money negatively defining him, it does have an effect."
But Lichtman says that with the election still six and a half months away, it is far too early to take public opinion polls too seriously. He says they are valid reasons to watch polls, including tracking the ups and downs of a political candidate during a campaign.
Still, Lichtman stresses that no poll should ever be seen as a prediction of how the electorate will behave on election day.
"Polls this early have absolutely no bearing whatever on the outcome of an election. The polls are not predictive, but they are indicative of what is going on right now," Lichtman said.
Lichtman notes that in the 1988 presidential election campaign, shortly before the election, candidate Michael Dukakis (Democrat) held a lead of 17 percentage points over the other major candidate for the office, George Bush, the father of the current president. Dukakis later lost to Bush by a substantial margin on election day.