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2005-11-25 00:00

  History shows Bush has a challenge ahead of him

  By Richard Benedetto, USA TODAY

  WASHINGTON — When a president falls below 40% approval in public opinion polls — as President Bush has done twice in the past two months — it's usually a sign of serious political danger.

  George Bush hopes to raise his approval ratings, as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton did before him.

  Since 1950, five of the eight other presidents who fell below 40% — Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush — lost their bids for re-election or opted not to run again. A sixth, Richard Nixon, was overwhelmed by the Watergate scandal and resigned.

  Only two, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, turned things around. Both saw their approval ratings drop below 40% early in their presidencies, but each had time to recover and got elected to a second term.

  The current President Bush's trouble arrived in his second term. Battered by high gasoline prices, declining public support for the Iraq war and lingering anger over the federal government's slow response to Hurricane Katrina, Bush saw his approval ratings slide to 39% in an Oct. 13-16 USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll, before climbing back to 40%-42% in four ensuing polls. In the most recent poll, taken Nov. 11-13, Bush's approval rating fell to 37%, the lowest the poll has recorded in his presidency.

  Though he no longer has to think about re-election, Bush still has three years left in his presidency — time in which he'll work to improve the U.S. position in Iraq, hold the Republican majority in Congress in 2006, restart a stalled legislative agenda and try to build a legacy. Slumping approval ratings will make all of those tougher. Even as he sought the comfort of his Texas ranch for Thanksgiving this week, Iraq war protesters on nearby roads were a reminder of his troubles.

  "Right now, it's hard to see how he revives himself other than to get lucky and capture Osama bin Laden or the war in Iraq suddenly takes a turn for the better and troops start coming home," says Gary Jacobson, a scholar on presidential approval at the University of California, San Diego.

  Bush is being prevented from falling farther by his Republican base. Overall, 80% of Republicans approve of the job he is doing, compared with 28% approval among independents and 7% among Democrats.

  "The Republican elites are already starting to peel away. If rank-and-file Republicans start to crumble, Bush will be in free fall," says Robert McClure, a political scientist at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

  But Republican pollster John McLaughlin notes that Bush doesn't have to run for re-election, and "presidents who work hard and set agendas in their second term can come back. The key to their success is holding their (party) base in tough times, as Clinton did during the Monica Lewinsky crisis." McLaughlin says he expects Bush to set a new agenda by early next year. "He has time to work hard and reconnect with the people."

  There are signs that Republicans looking ahead to next year's elections are worried about being too closely identified with Bush policies. Evidence includes the recent bipartisan vote in the Senate that called on Bush to be more forthcoming about an Iraq exit strategy, and GOP disagreements in the House and Senate over aggressive spending cuts and tax breaks.

  "He's beginning to look like a wounded president. Some congressional Republicans …… might start distancing themselves from him" says Jaime Regalado, director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

  How dangerous is 37% job approval?

  *Bush need look no farther than his father, George H. W. Bush, who struggled with a sluggish economy in 1992. His job approval hit 39% in February, and in November he was voted from office.

  *Carter, hurt by the Iran hostage crisis, was at 37% in September 1980. Two months later, he lost his re-election bid.

  *Ford, who succeeded Nixon, grappled with a falling economy and high inflation. He spent much of 1975 with approval percentages in the 30s and lost to Carter in '76.

  *Nixon saw his approval rating plummet to 31% in the summer of 1973 as the nation followed the Watergate hearings. He resigned a year later.

  *Johnson, stymied by the Vietnam War, hit 36% in March 1968, the month he decided not to seek re-election.

  *Truman, beset by the unpopular Korean War, was at 23% in January 1952, when he chose not to run again.

  Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy were the only two presidents in the past 50 years to never fall below 40% approval. Eisenhower's low was 49% in 1960, shortly after a U.S. spy plane was shot down by the Soviets. Kennedy bottomed at 56% in September 1963, two months before his assassination, as the public began to grow uneasy about U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

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