The Impatient Superpower

Posted in Other | 25-Apr-06 | Author: Andrew Denison

The Cherry Blossoms come to Washington every spring. Few other things show such regularity, though the rise and fall in the popularity of American governments comes close.

The roller coaster of public approval, with all its domestic and international consequences, is something every American president must contend with. George W. Bush, nevertheless, has a unique support line.

The Steady Decline


From fifty percent on Election Day, November 7, 2000 to 83 percent at the end of September 2001 to fifty percent on Election Day, November 2, 2004, to 32 percent in April, 2006. Now, George W. Bush is experiencing a new low, according to polls from FOX/Opinion Dynamics and from CNN.

Bush Down and Out

















FOX/Opinion Dynamics RV



















What goes up most come down. Or perhaps more tellingly, the harder they come the harder they fall. George W. Bush´s approval rating is bumping along the bottom of Bikini Bottom. Bush suffers from disapproval not just on Iraq, but across the board, from Katrina to gasoline to trustworthiness—but Iraq is the biggest stumbling block, tripping up Bush´s domestic agenda as well—and keeping his budget in the red. Bush broke the bank, Joe Six-Pack on Main Street, USA, might say.


Dr. Andrew B. Denison, Director of Transatlantic Networks, a foreign policy research institute in Königswinter Germany: "Americans will do the…
Dr. Andrew B. Denison, Director of Transatlantic Networks, a foreign policy research institute in Königswinter Germany: "Americans will do the right thing"
For George W. Bush, drawing a new hand of cards may be the last refuge of a scoundrel, but reshuffling White House and cabinet positions has (sometimes) reanimated past presidents.

White House veteran and noted public philosopher, David Gergen, speaks of this game in the Sunday, 23 April, editorial section of the New York Times. “Mr. Bush is the eighth straight president, stretching back to Lyndon Johnson, who has tried to rescue his administration at a low moment by shaking up his staff. It has rarely worked, and on the few occasions when it has, the two crucial factors have been that the president has acted in time and, critically, has wanted to make fundamental changes.”

Are there signs of Bush wanting fundamental changes? We see the “Architect,” Karl Rove, slipping out, the poker-faced “Spokesman,” Scott McCellen, folding his hand. But what about Public Enemy Number One? Whence Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld? Seldom have the sharks and hacks circled so vigorously, seldom have the calls for resignation been so numerous—and still left a Secretary in the game. Rumsfeld is Bush´s last big card on Iraq. The President must play it carefully, or lose the whole pot.

Nevertheless, winning the pot is more than personalities, concludes Gergen. A president has to break with the past. Better marketing will not suffice. “Mr. Bush has to want to change. He has to want to change policies like those on Iraq, energy and taxes; practices like secrecy; and politics like those that cater only to his base. Is he a leader whose resolve will ultimately become self-defeating stubbornness, or is he capable of flexibility, like his hero President Reagan? Much rides on the answer.” Americans remain to be convinced.

Across the conservative heartland of America, disapproval bites deep into Bush´s Republican base. Now, even the Christian conservatives are giving up on the Democracy Project, so the conclusions of Daniel Yankelovich, veteran American pollster, in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. A President without a base is not much of a president, and Bush´s hard-core base is eroding, as approval ratings move into the low thirties. Red America is losing the faith.

Two long years of Lame Duck and drag ass—Presidents have seen that happen before; it is never a pretty sight. When a President loses credibility, when his political capital is spent, then the US Congress goes for the rescue. The Legislators step into the breach, for better or worse. With elections every two years, 435 Congressmen (and a third of the 100 Senators) have their eyes on the next poll—the prevailing political winds. The 2006 congressional campaign sees the Members trimming their sails, and tacking left. Bipartisan majorities in both chambers are distancing themselves from the White House across a range of issues, from the Geneva Convention on Torture to the Dubai port deal to legislation on immigration reform. Congressmen and women hold their fingers to the local wind. The cross currents of contemporary American politics are blowing away from the White House—especially on Iraq.

Is American Isolationism rearing its ugly head? That is one way to look it. The classic narrative, the American ship of state lurching between vulnerability and over extension, between Charbrides and Scylla, is again unwinding. Yes, American commitment to things foreign, to things global, it does move with the times and the cost. Shoot out at High Noon, ride off into the sunset, an American motif like put up or shut up. So is ten years in the Balkans and Haiti and Panama, so is fifty years in Korea, so is sixty years in Japan and Germany. Americans do have staying power, when the price right, when the effort is justified—if not just. So where is America today?

Tired, impatient, cranky, and increasingly in a throw-the-rascals out mood. This is in the air, this spring, across the Continental 48 and Alaska and Hawaii. Yes, Americans are down on the world, but not ready to give up. Always looking for the Pot of Gold at the end of the Rainbow, those Gringos. Not victims, those Yanks, shapers of destiny they will be. Every minute of every hour of every day—in their own laid back and lackadaisical way. Disappointed, frustrated, jilted and the betrayed, but still a job to do, a world to save. Young men and women in mirror shades, roller blade knee-pads and combat gear, still chipper, still ready to toil, still wanting to do the job—so the random surveys and polls of US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Winston Churchill spoke of this sunny disposition: “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing after they have tried everything else.”

Public Opinion in America

Taking measure of the American body politic is no single task, there is no single view. It must always be a mosaic, an abstraction, put together in our minds, a narrative that offers coherence, meaning and a sense of direction. Nevertheless, the art of opinion polling, the market research of political projects and personalities is sophisticated, differentiated, and compelling. Americans do it well and often and increasingly globally. How do we measure the American mood? How can we say, “America is down and out, but not ready to give up.”? Pollsters help us here, as do demographers and statisticians, as do call centers and computers. Taking the public pulse is the job of increasingly important caste. First contact might come with a major pollster like Gallup, Pew, CNN, or major newspapers, like the Washington Post. One could also turn to a consolidator of polls, a poll blog of sorts, like Topics range from specific issues like immigration or Iraq to favourability ratings for the President, the Congress and others. They also try to take the pulse of the nation on more generic items like “state of the country”, good or bad. Last but not least, pollsters often do market research on everything from toothpaste to underpants.

Pollsters also pronounce on their numbers, offering analysis and interpretation of their hard data, trying to spot trends, new or old. Currently, George Bush´s low numbers inspires much thought. The relationship between Iraq and Bush´s standing finds frequent mention. Bush has also suffered in regard to his ability to fight terrorism, long his greatest strength. Finally, trust in his integrity is also taking a beating.

Even though Americans continue to think victory in Iraq is likely and that things are getting better, a majority now says the war was not worth it. The reason, according to Gallup Editor, Frank Newport: “the public does not see an upside for the United States. "The focus for Americans is Americans.” (cited in 21 March 06) Americans are now increasingly pessimistic on Iraq, even if they still want to stay the course. There is no compelling movement for immediate withdrawal of US forces, though the numbers supporting rapid withdrawal continue to rise.

Pessimistic, or just less optimistic?


Beyond specific domestic and international issues, Bush has also experienced a 26 point drop in trust, with the Washington Post´s Jim VandeHei writing, “The erosion in the public's support for Bush at a personal level is a striking reversal for a president who for most of his first term was described by the public as a strong and trustworthy leader, especially on national security measures.”

Pew also picks up this striking drop in credibility in a mid-March survey. “Honesty had been the single trait most closely associated with Bush, but in the current survey "incompetent" is the descriptor used most frequently.” Pew also notes how support in Bush´s own party, long one of his real strengths, has now significantly declined as well. “In January 2005, Bush earned a lofty 89% approval from members of his own party, but that has declined to 73% in the current survey.”

While low, Bush´s numbers are not unusually low by American standards, a Gallup editorial from 21 April reminds us. “Truman, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush all had ratings lower than Bush's low point so far, and Clinton and Ford just missed by a few points.” Still, Gallup notes that “If Bush's job approval ratings drop into the low 30% range or into the 20s, then we will be dealing with something increasingly rare. Also, the longer Bush's ratings linger in their current range, the more unprecedented. Several of the presidents whose ratings have dropped below 40% recovered fairly quickly. Bush has more than 2 1/2 years to go as president, and the path of his job approval ratings going forward will be the real test of just how unusual his current poor positioning will turn out to be. “

Moving from important politicians to important issues, one thing is clear: Four years after 9/11, Americans are still very concerned about events beyond their borders. Gallup offers this April assessment; in which war in Iraq, immigration and energy dominate the list of important problems.

Most Important Problems Foreign


With foreign policy issues still so pressing, one can not say that Americans are simply turning their backs on the world. Isolationism is not increasing. Americans thus remain in line with a long term trend toward greater internationalism. Jeffrey Jones of Gallup observes on April 21, “that 43% of Americans can be considered isolationist -- they agree the U.S. should let other countries get along on their own and agree that the U.S. should concentrate more on domestic problems. In contrast, 24% can be considered internationalist because they disagree with both statements. The remaining 33% hold mixed views.” This is an increase over earlier years. Jones concludes: “in the last 15 years, isolationist sentiment in the United States has held fairly steady, while internationalist sentiment has grown”. The long range trend continues to be an increasing American interest in the world, even if down somewhat since 9.11.

When going to war, Americans still clearly put security first. Bringing democracy to the world, especially if it means going to war, remains second-order priority. In his 2004 Inaugural Speech, George W. Bush asserted: “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.“ Nevertheless, a year later, the President´s Democracy Doctrine is not enthusiastically embraced by Americans. The Chicago Council on Foreign Policy, noted for its assessments of US public opinion on international questions, concludes in its September 2005 study, that A large bipartisan majority says that establishing a democracy was not a good enough reason to go to war in Iraq. The experience in Iraq has made Americans feel less supportive of using military force to bring about democracy.”

Moving further away from politics, to the “satisfaction index,” we find an indicator known for showing public “volatility.” Some pollsters also speak of a correlation between “satisfaction” and election success for incumbents. After 5 ½ years of “satisfied” in the lead, Americans have now been more “dissatisfied” than “satisfied” since the middle of 2002. Just since February, 2006, there has been a big shift of almost ten percent, bringing those “dissatisfied” to 71 percent.



Economic indicators are also an important part of the political landscape. Ironically, consumer confidence is high despite big deficits on trade and public spending. Americans are bullish on the economy, and bearish on politics. Some say this paradox has to do with the velocity of the American economy and the constant change it imposes on all Americans. At any rate, growth is expected to be around 3.3 percent for 2006, according to a poll of economic experts, done by the Economist.

Shop till you drop


Congress Raises its Head

The Midterm Elections loom large in Washington political conversations this spring. E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post concludes: “The administration's one and only domestic priority in 2006 is hanging on to control of Congress.” Republicans see themselves in mighty stormy waters—even with Karl Rove putting a hand on the tiller of national campaign strategy. This concern is rising even though incumbents—and thus the current majorities—enjoy significant structural advantages in the current US electoral system. Notes the Economist: ”Nowadays, no matter where they are, over 90% of those who run tend to be re-elected (98% in 2004), thanks to gerrymandering and the ease with which those in power can raise money.” These dikes and dams could nevertheless we overwhelmed by a tidal wave of anger against the incumbents. Politics is still about mobilizing the immobile.

Should the Democrats win back a majority in the US House of Representatives—still a long shot—the Bush Administration would be in a world of hurt. Politics are very polarized in Washington right now and a Democratic majority would go for Bush´s juggler. E.J.Dionne explains the threat to Bush. “The danger of a Democratic takeover of at least one house of Congress looms large and would carry huge penalties for Bush. The administration fears 'investigations of everything' by congressional committees, and the 'possibility of a forced withdrawal from Iraq' through legislative action."

The Framers of the American Constitution foresaw an important foreign policy role for the US Congress, giving the legislative branch not only the power of the purse, but the power to ratify or reject international treaties. The Framers were wary of this power to ratify, making “foreign entanglements” into the law of the land; they required the President to win “advice and consent” from two-thirds of the US Senators. More generally, when a President loses support, when a president oversteps certain bounds, Congress begins to raise its head—and flex its muscles. Recent actions, from Senator John McCain´s legislation on torture to the rejection of the Dubai port deal, are constitutional checks and balances at work.

The spotlight shines on Congress in the months and weeks before elections, particularly Midterm Elections. Returning from Easter Recess this week, Congress will again be anxious to show its back in town—and maybe even in the driver´s seat. Congress will seek and gain a greater voice in policy. The discussions and debates in Congress and on the campaign trail will offer an important barometer of the American political mood and American political priorities. Realignment on a variety of issues is possible. “Tipping points” leading to action in the new areas and new ways are possible. One particular area to watch is energy policy, according to Yankelovich in Foreign Affairs. Here three important factors come together to argue for impending change: “The oil-dependency issue now meets all the criteria for having reached the tipping point: an overwhelming majority expresses concern about the issue, the intensity of the public's unease has reached significant levels, and the public believes the government is capable of addressing the issue far more effectively than it has until now.”

Opportunities and Dangers

Washington is perhaps a sellers market just now, with many in the governing class looking for new ideas and new personalities. The Big Remake will be all the talk. Even the stubborn “Decider” can only be so decisive, or stubborn, before he, too, has to sail with the prevailing winds. Another “reinvention” is on the minds of many. Ronald Reagan emerged from tense East-West relations and the Iran-Contra Scandal to ride into history on a golden chariot of goodwill. But history only rhymes. Bush has a hard road to ride by any measure.

President Bush´s difficulties in Iraq may dominate public concern, but he has also suffered from allegations of lawbreaking among the President´s top advisors (from leaks of classified information to unconstitutional wire-tappings), from the disaster of Katrina to its ongoing cost, and, significantly, to oil prices above 70 dollars a barrel—and almost $3.00 a gallon. Domestic advisors have now been moved around, but the architect and head contractor on Iraq was Donald Rumsfeld. With a host of retired generals, many having served in Iraq, publicly airing their criticism of Mr. Rumsfeld, the political stakes have gone up again. And Americans know: The strength of the President´s domestic support affects his credibility abroad. Poll ratings like Bush now has are a geopolitical liability of the first degree. “Neoconservatives” like David Brooks have joined more moderate columnists and bloggers like David Ignatius and Andrew Sullivan, all still supporters of the Iraq war, in calling for Rumsfeld´s head. Wall Street Journal commentator and supporter of Bush, Fred Barnes, hopes for a “Big Bang.”

For Americas friends and enemies this is both opportunity and danger. The image of domestic discontent will find those seeking to exploit it, whether in Pyongyang or Paris. America´s unlimited ambitions and Americas limited means also offer an opportunity to cash in. Influence is going at a good price in Washington. Solidarity, with America, and thus solidarity with the White House, is something Bush sorely needs to win his battle for public opinion, his battle for the home front. “The Dick Cheney era of foreign policy is over,” writes David Rothkopf from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Here, the Europeans might even be able to stay in the cockpit on Iran diplomacy, presuming they offer a credible contribution. The Europeans can internationalize and multilateralize the Iraq problem if they are willing to lend a little more moral and material support. The Europeans could join forces with the Americans to get a handle on energy. In terms of influence gained and interests advanced, that beats Schadenfreuede any day. Even a superpower sometimes hits the Wall and desperately needs a strong dose of solidarity and support.

Nevertheless, things can get dangerous when the last superpower seems down and out. Sometimes, countries do not want influence so much as protection. Without it, things get scary. Europe could face a new missile crisis with Iranian Shahab 3 and a little more highly enriched uranium. America’s friends and enemies in Iraq also need an accurate assessment of America´s staying power. The Sunnis fear an America too strong, but they must also fear an America too weak—and the wrath of the Shia that could ensue. Friends and enemies can overplay their hands, and have to pay up later. At any rate, the White House knows that success in Iraq, not reshuffling at the White House, is key to putting the Bush presidency back together.

With Midterm elections on November 7, 2006, Democrats are clearly relishing Bush´s public opinion nose-dive. Their own alternatives are not yet so clear—especially on Iraq. The Democratic leadership is very critical of White House competence (as is the public), but on strategy, whether large continued military presence or building up Iraqi security forces or forging a unity government that balances the interests of the Shiites, the Kurds and the Sunni, Democrats basically support the Bush strategy. Precipitous withdrawal is not yet an electoral issue. Bush will continue to find support for his argument, to “stay the course,” because the alternatives still seem so much bleaker. Nevertheless, some worry of an “Iraq Syndrome” like a “Vietnam Syndrome” that preceded it, arising from the failure of American strategy, and moving Americans to demand a withdrawal from Iraq—and the world. John Mueller, writing in Foreign Affairs, makes this case, arguing that Americans have a long history of wars ending in frustration. Indeed, America´s wars have never ended well, victory in war is most often Pyrrhic. American wars leave Americans tired and hungry. Americans move from disillusionment to disengagement. But as Churchill noted, after they try everything else, Americans will try the right thing. Despite the disillusion and frustration, America will war on, in this, America´s Long War, if not America´s Last War.