Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Op-Ed Columns

President's fortunes follow the direction of the country

SAY you're the president. Here are two names you don't want in the same sentence with yours: Jimmy Carter. Richard Nixon.

But that's the pickle the President finds himself in this spring. George W. Bush has the lowest poll ratings of any president but Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon in the past half century. Actually, that's not quite right. Mr. Bush's low ratings also are tied with those of his father, only months before he was defeated for re-election in 1992.

Say, once again, you are the President. Here's a sentence you don't want typed during your watch: Seven out of 10 Americans believe the country is going in the wrong direction.

These figures come from latest New York Times/CBS News Poll, but even if you are absolutely, positively convinced that the Times and CBS are out to undermine the President, the findings of other public opinion polls are not substantially different.

No president likes to be bunched with Messrs. Carter and Nixon, whose presidencies still have a feckless and unsavory odor, respectively, even decades after they have faded from the newspaper columns and been etched in history textbooks. Mr. Carter is remembered for a debilitating energy crisis and a humiliating military debacle in the Middle East desert. Mr. Nixon is remembered for shaving the truth or, more starkly, for lying.

Presidents have bounced back, of course. President Bill Clinton added an average 8 percentage points for the final three years of his second term, according to Gallup Poll figures. Mr. Bush is struggling now to replicate that.

But this is a difficult challenge. A Gallup Poll taken before the most recent spike in gasoline prices showed that three out of five Americans believed the economy was getting worse. Such indicators are important because public expectations are a critical element of consumer confidence and a hint of the public's spending patterns. With gasoline prices remaining high, it is possible that the otherwise robust economy might stutter.

At the same time, continuing Iranian intransigence on nuclear issues and continuing Iraqi rebellion give little hope that the diplomatic and security picture will brighten before the midterm congressional elections or perhaps beyond.

Now back to Presidents Nixon and Carter.

Mr. Nixon's problems were largely of his own making, derived from getting caught in one of the greatest obfuscations in history. These problems had a cruel but unavoidable multiplier effect: By the time of Watergate, Mr. Nixon had a quarter-century on the national scene, as a communist-hunter whose aggressiveness had few peers, a senatorial contender who prevailed in a campaign of red-baiting, an unctuous vice presidential candidate who added the word "Checkers" to the political lexicon, a polarizing vice president who reveled in his "kitchen debate" in Moscow, a presidential nominee who narrowly lost to John F. Kennedy, a resentful gubernatorial candidate who vowed he had conducted his last press conference, and a divisive chief executive who presided during an unpopular war - enough, in short, to gather an enemies list all his own.

Mr. Bush has his haters, to be sure. But none of them are as longstanding as the Nixon haters, who began honing their hatred in the Alger Hiss affair in 1948. By 1974, many of them had 26 years of pent-up resentment to aim at a weakened president.

Mr. Bush does not have that disadvantage; wheel back 26 years and you find the current president was running Arbusto Energy and was attracting the attention, and the resentment, of nobody.

Mr. Carter went to Washington as a former governor unschooled in foreign affairs. He was propelled into office more by his personality than by his policies. He had the bad luck to be president during a period of stress sparked by Islamic radicalism and, partially as a result, of skyrocketing energy prices. His detractors seized on his arrogance and inexperience. Maybe Mr. Carter is a surprising but useful example for Mr. Bush.

But unlike Mr. Bush, Mr. Carter's troubles came early in his White House tenure and he was unable to rebound swiftly enough to win a second term. One of the least effective presidents ever, he became perhaps the most effective former president ever. It's the best second act in all of American history, except maybe Barry Bonds'.

Both Mr. Carter and Mr. Bush led parties that controlled both houses on Capitol Hill, and yet both men watched helplessly as party leaders went their own way. Both watched their poll numbers plummet. Both - this is the case with Mr. Bush so far - could do little to stanch the damage.

But Mr. Bush has a big advantage Mr. Carter did not possess. He does not have the pressure of a re-election campaign. He has the luxury to ignore poll findings about his own performance. He has the political elbow room to separate what is important from what is not important. And for the remainder of the President's term he has the opportunity to do just that, and to ignore his own poll ratings and focus on one poll finding that does matter - the one about the direction the nation is going. If he fixes that, the verdict of history must necessarily follow. If he doesn't, the verdict of history will be unforgiving.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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