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Presidents Suffer Falling Polls in Times of Turmoil

May 25, 2006 at 6:09 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now some historical perspective on presidents facing turmoil, and to Jeffrey Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN: President Bush has seen his public approval ratings drop steadily over the past year as he confronts problems on a number of fronts.

There’s the war on terror and the war in Iraq; and now what to do about Iran and its nuclear capabilities; reports of government wiretappings and the secret examination of phone records; criminal investigations into the leaking of a CIA agent’s identity that have reached into the White House; a Republican majority in Congress divided over government spending and immigration reform; and soaring gas prices that show no signs of retreat.

We look at the present situation through the prism of the past with two of our NewsHour regulars, presidential historian Michael Beschloss and Ellen Fitzpatrick, historian at the University of New Hampshire.

They’re joined today by Jonathan Alter, “Newsweek” columnist and author of a new book, “Defining Moment: FDR’s First Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope.”

Welcome to all of you.

Michael, starting with you, almost by definition every presidency has turmoil. Are there examples, though, from the past that particularly help us illuminate the current situation?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Well, the big thing with George W. Bush, obviously, is the war in Iraq. Aside from everything else that’s happened to make him unpopular, if that war were not there, you wouldn’t be seeing a president with his approval ratings by some polls in the low 30s, and that’s historically — that has some precedence.

Harry Truman with the Korean War was extremely unpopular. Believe it or not, by the time Truman left the presidency, his poll ratings were down to 22 percent. Lyndon Johnson in ’67 and ’68, Vietnam equally unpopular.

And the thing is, that to take Truman and Johnson, both of them kept on saying, “You know, the war will go on, but we’ll turn a corner, and perhaps I’ll do something else that will help Americans listen to me again.”

They never did, because they were basically saying, “Until you get this war solved or at least looking a little bit better, we’re not going to listen to you. We’re going to make you a lame duck.” And I think same thing is true with George W. Bush.

Past examples of turmoil

JEFFREY BROWN: Ellen Fitzpatrick, what examples jump out at you?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK, University of New Hampshire: Well, I agree with Michael that I think what we've seen in the post-World War II period is that the wars of these years have been more unpopular as they go along and have created enormous political difficulties for the presidents that have held responsibility for overseeing them.

This is true of Korea; it's certainly true of Vietnam. And it is apparently true of the war in Iraq, as well.

The historical record isn't very encouraging on this point, because I do think, as Michael pointed out, that as the presidents become increasingly seen as sort of captive of events around them, rather than driving events, they have greater and greater difficulty inspiring confidence from the American people.

And although the public is tolerant, even was enthusiastic, about some of these ventures when they began, in the foreign policy arena, that enthusiasm has declined over time. And it's very, very difficult for a president who doesn't have an end in sight to restore that sense of confidence.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jonathan Alter, you have written about a book about a president that had to deal with some rather major large crises of the 20th century. How in particular -- what struck you about the way FDR dealt with his problems?

JONATHAN ALTER, Author, "The Defining Moment": Well, first of all, he always took the initiative. You know, FDR held two press conferences a week, so he was not reacting to news so much as creating news. Actually, in those first hundred days, he shifted the whole locus of news in the United States from New York to Washington.

And so the really ironic and interesting thing to me is that, even though the economic condition of the country was horrible -- there was 80 percent unemployment in some areas -- and it continued to be horrible, double-digit unemployment all the way until World War II, most Americans thought the country was on the right track. They overwhelmingly re-elected Franklin Roosevelt.

Whereas today, we have the inverse. The economy is basically strong. People are doing pretty well, and yet overwhelming majorities think we're on the wrong track.

An unpopular war hurts polls

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Michael, you and all of you have actually dealt in some form with this question of: Do you try to change the subject, or do you try to hit things head on and run with it?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, that's the problem when you're dealing with an unpopular war, because as long as it goes on -- and Iraq is a perfect example of this -- you can't change the subject.

Bizarrely enough, if I were a president and I were worried about something making me unpopular and making it hard for me to do my job, I would almost rather have a political scandal than an unpopular war, as long as you survive the scandal.

Nixon, of course, did not survive Watergate. But take a look at someone like Bill Clinton. He suffered the Monica Lewinsky scandal that went on for 13 months. He was impeached. But the moment he was acquitted, that was sort of the end of the chapter, and Clinton was able to revive his ratings, was able to go on to do things like try to make peace in the Middle East.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ellen, I'll ask you this. How much of what we're looking at now is what we could call "second term-itis," to coin a phrase?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I guess there's the temptation to see it that way. But I really think that this presidency of George Bush's has been defined from really very early on by the September 11 attacks and that that has shaped all that has followed.

Not simply because it was a tragic event that changed the world we live in, but also because of the response of the Bush administration to it and the way they defined their approach as going to war, whether against terror or in Afghanistan or in Iraq. However appropriate or inappropriate those solutions may be, it defined a particular approach that has lasted.

I think the examples that we've been given tonight that are challenging for the Bush administration are administrations that had very strong signature domestic programs. And I think one of the things that is difficult in the current context is the lack of a strong, very well-defined, as Roosevelt certainly had, even in the depths of the Great Depression, the kind of confidence that was spoken of earlier was communicated by Roosevelt, because he had a clear agenda about what to do.

This was true of LBJ during the Vietnam War. So historically his legacy is much broader. It's seen as the Great Society, the war on poverty, and, of course, the tragedy of the war in Vietnam.

There is opportunity to climb up

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Jonathan, you've written about FDR and you've covered many presidents. How much ability does a president have to climb out of problems? I mean, how much does he control the agenda to turn things around?

JONATHAN ALTER: I think he has a lot of opportunity to climb out, maybe not up above 50 percent, but he can get back up into the 40s. The president can dominate the agenda, if he's skillful enough.

You know, I got interested in writing about Roosevelt because I'm interested in leadership as it applies in business, government, even the PTA. I think the principles are pretty much the same: You need a vision. You need to be able to communicate that vision, and then execute.

And I think, actually, President Bush's vision is pretty clear. He's had intermittent success at communicating his vision, but it's on the execution part that he's really fallen down, on the competence level. And I think it's partly because he's so often put loyalty ahead of performance in running his government.

Now, he's got more than a thousand days to go. He's got a lot of time to try to change. It's a question of whether he wants to. And by change, I don't mean putting in a new spokesman, you know? I'm talking about fundamentally reshaping his presidency. And that's up to him, but it's not impossible.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Michael, with those thousand days to go, would you think that President Bush is now at the point in his tenure of thinking about legacy? Is that what we have seen in other presidents in the past?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, you know, the odd thing, Jeff, is he always has been. He's almost like John Adams in one respect. John Adams had this feeling, "If I'm unpopular, that must mean I'm a good man and I'm doing the right thing." And that's vintage George W. Bush.

So, oddly enough, in a period like this, he will say to himself, "If my numbers are in the low-30s, that means I'm using political capital." And he would say, "I am content to wait 30 years, and if historians say that I did the right thing in the war on terror in Iraq, that's more important to me than it would have been to be popular while I was president." Here's a case of stay tuned.

Polls depend on current events

JEFFREY BROWN: Ellen, what can you add on this legacy question and how presidents have seen it and acted upon it?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Well, think about a thousand days. It's an enormously evocative phrase. That is the sum total of John F. Kennedy's presidency.

And think of the impact that he had on this nation, at least in a broader psychological, spiritual, emotional sense. He looms very large in the history of the United States in the late 20th century, and yet his presidency was not -- you know, a thousand days encapsulated it.

So it's enough time; I think that's correct. But in terms of the legacy, Michael's correct. Much depends on what happens in Iraq, and in the Middle East, and in the war on terror.

I would note that even when Richard Nixon was bogged down in enormous criticism from the antiwar movement in Vietnam, he did launch his China initiative and managed to really rebound pretty dramatically in the polls.

So foreign policy is a kind of "live by the sword, die by the sword" for presidents. They can use the arena that they have so much power within this sphere to really look presidential, to act presidential, to do important things, but they often become captive of these events, as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Jonathan Alter, a last word on how Roosevelt projected or directed his domestic policy, in terms of legacy. Was he thinking along those lines?

JONATHAN ALTER: He was thinking along all lines. But, you know, he had a pretty unsuccessful second term, and then external events, in terms of foreign policy, intervened, and he got a chance to have a third and a fourth term. That could happen with Bush.

We don't know what might happen in the world. Maybe he could make a breakthrough with Iran; maybe things will go better than expected in Iraq; maybe they'll catch Osama bin Laden, which would give him a brief boost.

So there are all sorts of unpredictable factors here, but it does ultimately come back to the president himself, not his surrogates, not his people, and how open-minded, supple, flexible, adaptable he is at making mid-course corrections.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Jonathan Alter, Ellen Fitzpatrick, and Michael Beschloss, thank you all.