Weak Polls Dog Bush Ahead of State of the Union

President Bush will give the annual State of the Union Address on Tuesday night. Debbie Elliott talks with Senior National Correspondent Linda Wertheimer about the president's standing in recent polls, controversy over domestic spying and the political importance of Tuesday's speech.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

On Tuesday night, President Bush will deliver the annual State of the Union Address to a joint session of Congress. The speech comes after a flurry of public appearances by the administration trying to justify its domestic spying program. NPR's senior national correspondent Linda Wertheimer joins us to talk about how this issue is affecting the president. Hello, Linda.

LINDA WERTHEIMER reporting:

Hello, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: Let's talk first about this public relations campaign by the White House. Why the big push this past week on the surveillance issue?

Ms. WERTHEIMER: I'd call it damage control. Lots of newspaper headlines and news stories on television and radio about spying on American citizens, warrantless wiretaps on Americans, that can't be good. So the first thing that the president has done, and I think this is probably the most successful approach to take to something like this, is to rename it. So instead of calling it warrantless wiretaps, the president calls it Terrorist Surveillance.

ELLIOTT: Now several polls did come out Friday that looked at whether the American people are concerned about the idea of their government gathering intelligence in this country. What did the polls tell us?

Ms. WERTHEIMER: I think what they're telling us is that the American people think this is a big issue, but they're not, uh, they haven't really made up their minds about it. It's pretty much tied in most polls.

The New York Times says that if you phrase the question should President Bush authorize these kinds of wiretaps in order to protect the country against terrorists, then 53 percent say yes. If you take out all of those kind of value words, 46 percent say yes, and that's all within what they call the margin of error.

ELLIOTT: Are the American people making allowances for, maybe, a violation of privacy in the name of terrorism?

Ms. WERTHEIMER: There's no question that the American people are thinking about terrorism as a very serious issue and maybe making some sorts of adjustments in their thinking otherwise. That ABC Washington Post poll which was taken this month said that 65 percent of the American people think that investigating the threat of terror is more important than protecting privacy.

ELLIOTT: Stepping back from the domestic terrorism issue, generally, how are people feeling about the job the president is doing?

Ms. WERTHEIMER: Well, the president is just not doing very well at all. I mean, he is facing the State of the Union speech in just about as bad shape, I think, as a president could be. A CNN poll which was taken this week and released on Friday says that 58 percent of the people polled said the president's second term has been a failure. Forty percent said they were likely to vote against any candidate who backed the president. They get down to the question of is the president honest, and the American people split evenly on that, 49-49. Now that's a terrible number for a sitting president.

ELLIOTT: So going into his State of Union Address on Tuesday night, how does he start to tackle some of these issues that people are not happy with, and how does he try to portray himself as honest?

Ms. WERTHEIMER: I think it's gonna be a very difficult thing to do, because when you look at the issues that he's been concerned about, one-by-one, the president has failed on almost everything. He has not reformed social security. His prescription drug plan doesn't appear to be working very well. The war in Iraq, which is, of course, the number one issue, is not going very well at all. Problems in the Middle East are growing more serious daily with this recent election where the Palestinians have chosen a party that the president says he cannot work with.

So I think that with all of those tensions right upfront, just about the best thing the president could do for himself is to be himself and to be this sort of likeable George Bush that everybody liked better than John Kerry.

ELLIOTT: As a second-term president, how important is public opinion? Does it matter when you're not facing voters again?

Ms. WERTHEIMER: It may not matter as much for the president since he can't be reelected, but on the other hand, the president is the leader of his party, and if people are making negative judgments about him and they visit those negative judgments upon the members of Congress, then the 2006 mid-term elections will not go well for the Republicans. So in that sense, it's very, very important.

ELLIOTT: NPR's senior national correspondent Linda Wertheimer, thank you.

Ms. WERTHEIMER: Thank you.

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