The Tricky Politics of Adversity

Listening to Democrats react to President George Bush's strength in the polls this week brought a flashback. It sounded like the Republicans in the fall of 1998, when President Bill Clinton surged in the polls in the face of impeachment. Now it's the Democrats' turn to be stunned at the public's willingness to embrace an embattled president.

Bush's problems today are a world away from those Clinton faced that autumn, and they do not include a hostile House of Representatives. But April has been a tough month for this White House. The news out of Iraq has been nearly all bad, and the casualty count has soared for soldiers, insurgents and civilians alike. Back home, the independent commission investigating the terror attacks of Sept. 11 has raised pointed questions about the Bush administration's performance and priorities that spring and summer.

To top it off, the president's news conference last week, staged in prime time to reassure the public, drew mixed reviews, at best.

All this came on the heels of early April polls in which Bush's job approval ratings dipped significantly below 50 percent and his lead over Democrat John Kerry evaporated. So all the intervening events had to damage his standing further, right?

Wrong.

Both the Gallup Poll done for CNN and USA Today and the ABC News-Washington Post polls show Bush's approval ratings back up over 50 percent. What's more, he once again bests Kerry in trial heats among likely voters. Even as nearly six-in-ten Americans say they think the country is "off on the wrong track," just over half say Bush is doing a good job.

It calls to mind a quote by another president more than 40 years ago: "The worse I do, the more popular I get."

That was John F. Kennedy, speaking to an aide in 1961 after his poll numbers spiked in the wake of the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion.

For a nation that prides itself on a certain rugged individualism, it seems we are a very loyal bunch. And never more so than when a president hits into a tough patch overseas.

Some explain today's poll numbers as a reaction to Vietnam, when public opinion turned against the war and the troops in the field were seen as suffering as a result. The argument here is that Americans want to stand behind the young men and women in Iraq, and the best way to do that is to get behind the president.

All along, the Bush folks have said their man holds an advantage in this November's election on questions of national security and foreign policy. Bush wins even playing defense on these issues, they say, because the contest is on the president's home turf.

Another variable to be calculated in this equation is the month-long, $55 million ad campaign his forces conducted beginning in mid-March. Much of it went to tarnish the image Kerry had established in the Democratic primaries, the image of a winner and a war hero who could call himself pro-defense.

Democrats fire back that the polls ebb and flow, that the race is close, that Bush is marginal for an incumbent and that the polls' own internal numbers — like that right track-wrong track question — show real vulnerabilities. They've also just launched a new ad campaign of their own to characterize Kerry for voters who don't yet know much about him.

At some level, however, Bush's resilient poll standing speaks simply to Americans' desire to hold fast to our leaders and to rally round when times are bad. Times are bad in Iraq, and these impulses are strong and long standing.

One political science truism is that re-election campaigns are referendums on the incumbent. In times of national stress, however, it may not be so simple.

NPR's Beth Donovan is an elections editor for NPR News. This is her third presidential election with NPR.

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