State of the Union, Midterm Elections

This week Congress returns to session as President Bush prepares to give the State of the Union address. Host Steve Inskeep talks to NPR news analyst Cokie Roberts about the president's approval ratings and how that may affect midterm elections.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Congress returns this week ready to hear a ritual of American government, the president's State of the Union message. President Bush will press his agenda before lawmakers who know the President's low approval ratings.

We're going to get some analysis, as we do every Monday, from NPR's Cokie Roberts. Good morning, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS reporting:

Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So, what do the president's approval ratings mean for the year ahead?

ROBERTS: Well, his approval ratings in a variety of polls now show him just hovering in that low 40s range of 42%, around there; and he's a lame duck anyway. He can't run for reelection. So, it's going to be very hard to get anything done, for him to convince Congress to go with his agenda, because it's not just low numbers for him Steve. What we're seeing for the first time in these polls is high numbers for the Democrats as a party.

ROBERTS: ABC Washington Post poll released yesterday, the Democrats lead Republicans by 14 points in trust to handle the nation's main problems. That's the first time they've had a majority on that question since 1992 and they have a 16-point lead in the congressional election preferences. Now that's, of course, generic, that's Democrats versus Republicans, not an individual Democrat versus an individual Republican, but still, that makes Republicans very nervous.

So, they're free-lancing. Some are saying, well, we need to fix the prescription drug program. Others are saying, well, we need to cut spending to get to our conservative base, although that's not generally terribly popular in an election year and I thought the president was very interesting on that in his press conference last week. He was not calling for great spending cuts. Others are hoping that the high numbers that the president continues to hold on terrorism will carry them through, but that's the only issue where his approval of handling the issue is higher than his disapproval in the ABC poll.

INSKEEP: The president has said he's going to campaign for Republican candidates this fall which raises the question of whether the Republicans want him.

ROBERTS: Well, he has been out the last two weeks or so and been showing the likeability, the humor that he showed in his first campaign and then in his second campaign for president, and Republicans have been asking him to do that, but you're right, it's not a great track record here. Ronald Reagan, in 1986, was incredibly well liked. His approval rating was at about 65% and he went out all over the country saying, do one last one for the Gipper, keep the Republican Senate, and he lost the Senate, and it's not just that the Democrats took the Senate, but Reagan learned what it means to lose.

After the whole Congress went Democratic, you had the Iran-Contra investigation. George Bush has been blessed on this front. He has not really had a Congress investigating things. There's been a little on domestic surveillance and Katrina, but nothing like if the opposition party were in control. I mean, look right now. Democrats are pressing the President to release pictures of himself with lobbyist Jack Abramoff. If they were in control of Congress, they'd be subpoenaing those pictures, so it really, you know, makes a difference to him whether the Democrats take control or not.

INSKEEP: Now, Cokie, before Republican lawmakers face the voters, they have an election among themselves in the House of Representatives for a leader to replace Tom DeLay. What do you expect to happen there?

ROBERTS: Well, again, that one is in the shadow of the Abramoff scandal and the acting majority leader, Missouri's Roy Blunt is in the lead, but opponents trying to tie him to the lobbyists in the whole, sort of culture of lobbying in Washington, but all of the candidates have some lobbying ties and I think it's more likely that the House will make a decision on inside issues, how the member runs the House, how he treats other members and how well he counts votes, than outside issues and I think that it would be wrong to read too much into this election in terms of what it means for the culture of Washington.

INSKEEP: Now, let's talk about another set of races very briefly. Governors are running for reelection or for election this year.

ROBERTS: And what you're seeing is red state governors moving to the middle. Governor Cain in Virginia will give the response to the State of the Union message trying to present a moderate face and Governor Ehrlich of Maryland moving to the middle, a Republican in a blue state, trying to spend more on programs. So, I think that's where you're seeing practicality is at the governor's level.

INSKEEP: And, of course, the governor's races tend to be very powerful and tend sometimes to indicate where the presidential race will go in the future. Thanks very much.

That's NPR's Cokie Roberts, news analyst. We hear her every Monday here on Morning Edition. And you are listening to Morning Edition from NPR News.

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