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Presidents Suffer Falling Polls in Times of Turmoil

President Bush has seen his public approval ratings drop steadily over the past year as he confronts problems on a number of fronts. Presidential historians reflect upon the present situation through the prism of the past.

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  • 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.

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