George W. Bush’s Presidency was sinking precipitously shortly before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. On Aug. 27, 2001, the Zogby survey reported that the President had a positive rating of only 50 percent, and a negative rating of 49 percent. Thirteen days later, on Sept. 9, a Washington Post–Gallup poll gave him somewhat better stats—55 percent approval and 41 percent disapproval—but that poll showed that the unfavorable view of Mr. Bush in early September actually had increased by 10 percent from August. Those were dismal statistics for a President not quite in office a year.
What these surveys suggest is that eight months into Mr. Bush’s Presidency, he was already wearing thin his welcome with the American people. This was at a time when his relations with Congress were tense and the Democrats had regained control of the Senate. Despite Mr. Bush’s success with his tax-cut bill, he was in a public fight over stem-cell research, followed by education, immigration and the question of the Social Security “lockbox.” And he was simultaneously pressing for a retrogressive domestic agenda.
After the shocking assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Zogby showed Mr. Bush’s popularity soaring to 82 percent positive and only 17 percent negative. The Washington Post–Gallup poll had Mr. Bush’s approval rating even higher. From then on—really until this year—Mr. Bush maintained a plus rating with the American people, tied almost solely to 9/11.
Like “America’s Mayor,” Rudy Giuliani, whose approval ratings were at their lowest ebb on 9/10, Mr. Bush was elevated to political nobility by the kamikazes of Osama bin Laden.
His lackluster poll numbers and the unpopularity of his agenda were forgotten or put aside as the U.S. mourned and prepared its response to the attacks.
The image of Mr. Bush fighting back—something, by the way, which any American President would have had to have done under the same circumstances or he certainly would have faced impeachment—allowed him to catapult over the failures of his first eight months.
He was able to push forward an agenda that, under other conditions, might have been rejected as reactionary. Indeed, in 2002, despite a threadbare domestic record, Mr. Bush was able to increase Republican margins in that year’s midterm Congressional elections. In 2003, of course, he launched his war on Iraq, despite the outright opposition of the United Nations and some of our allies, his inability to find weapons of mass destruction and his lack of success in connecting Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda. This led to the looting and mayhem that followed Saddam’s downfall, and the insurgency that sprung up thereafter.
Then, in 2004, he won the narrowest re-election race in years. That victory owed much to Karl Rove’s strategy of relentlessly appealing to fears related to 9/11. By framing the campaign in such a way, Mr. Bush was able to glide past a first-term record that was actually hurting him among the electorate. His failures and controversial initiatives accounted for John Kerry’s close finish.
Republican manipulation of 9/11 blinded voters to the fact that Mr. Bush turned Bill Clinton’s surplus into a massive debt, gutted environmental regulations, enacted an unwieldy Medicare prescription bill, ducked national health insurance, weakened mine-safety regulations, reduced scientific research funding, ended trust-busting and widened American poverty.
His foreign-policy record was hardly better, renowned mainly for its repudiation of global treaties that the U.S. had once supported and its shift toward unilateralism, which frayed relations with all of our allies around the planet.
Today, Mr. Bush is in deep trouble in the polls. He has gone downhill since February 2005, when his favorability rating last stood above 50 percent, one month into his second term. His positive numbers now hover from 34 to 40 percent. His collapse follows the disasters he helped to create, including the increasingly vicious Iraq war, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the botching of Katrina relief, the Social Security and Medicare calamities, the controversial Dubai port deal and others. But what must be especially disheartening for him is that his ratings even in his own party are now 10 to 15 percent lower than his previous level of support. Those low ratings have given Democrats hope of winning control of Capitol Hill this November.
All of this suggests that Mr. Bush is returning to what he was always viewed as before the 9/11 catastrophe—namely, a mediocrity. George Bush, without Osama bin Laden, would almost certainly not have been re-elected President in 2004.
With the passage of almost five years since 9/11, and the calming of emotions from that terrible day, the American people are beginning to view the Bush Presidency for what it really has always been: one of the most inept and feckless since that of Millard Fillmore.