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Published: Sunday, 5/1/2005

Divisions are deep, passions are strong in America today

WASHINGTON - Early the other morning, sleepy reporters' heads snapped up when John Zogby, a respected independent pollster, suggested at a media breakfast that President Bush is a lame duck and "every day the duck gets lamer."

Mr. Zogby's latest polling showed Mr. Bush at his lowest level - a positive job-approval rating of 46 percent, down from a high of 80 percent in January, 2002. That does not mean he wouldn't be re-elected if last year's election were today - he would, by a solid 5 percent.

Thus, Americans are not having buyer's remorse over giving Mr. Bush a second term. But they are worried about the war in Iraq and the mounting deaths and injuries, the economy, high gas prices, and the President's desire to change Social Security, with nearly two in three Americans saying they are skeptical of his approach.

It is unusual this early in a second term for a president to be viscerally unpopular with half the population. What is going on?

Part of the answer certainly lies with the American people themselves. The election breakdown of "red" states (Republican) vs. "blue" states (Democratic) has not gone away.

"Americans are polarized and not in the mood for real conversations right now," Mr. Zogby said. "We are split into camps. If you are talking about the center, many people in the center wouldn't show up (to have a conversation)."

Americans are sharply, passionately divided - whether the issue is abortion, stem-cell research, the sad last days of Terri Schiavo, the war in Iraq, the right response to terrorism, drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, new bankruptcy rules, the behavior of House GOP leader Tom DeLay, Senate filibusters, or the media's extensive coverage of the papal drama in Rome.

Technology advances are dividing Americans more than ever - anytime doctors have the means to play God and do it, there is going to be dissension.

The immediacy of controversy is another factor. Because of television and the Internet, it seemed the entire world stopped for the death of one pope and the ascension of another. For days, everyone seemed to be an expert in analyzing the conservative views of the new pope and what it would mean for the entire world. Nothing gets the blood stirring like religion.

The cult of celebrity also plays into the drama. Pope John Paul II was a celebrity. Now Pope Benedict XVI is one, too. Mr. Bush and his wife Laura are celebrities, as are former President Bill Clinton and his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, the front-runner for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Whatever they say or do makes news, much of it stirring partisan sentiments.

Clearly, Mr. Bush, who is not permitted to run again, has decided not to moderate his views in his second term, which is causing consternation even among members of his own party.

Growing bitterness in Congress combined with the ineffectual nostalgia among longer-serving members for the long-gone days of camaraderie shows that legislators, too, are forced into warring camps by virtue of their beliefs.

A lack of what once was called common courtesy plays into the angry tone in America. When Vice President Cheney swore at a Democrat on the floor of the Senate last year, it was a stunning breach not just of etiquette but of Senate rules. Some Americans now think little of e-mailing crude, rude, even vulgar messages to someone they've never met, including those in the White House, in Hollywood, and on Capitol Hill.

With so many old icons dethroned, Americans are more cynical about everyone's motives and more prone to criticize. The former king of pop, who was adored by millions, now stands on trial, accused of child molestation. Domestic diva Martha Stewart, who became one of the most famous and richest women in America, went to jail. Americans saw Mr. Clinton, while president, forced to admit to excruciatingly embarrassing behavior. The list is unending, and the old adage - don't judge lest you be judged - is long forgotten.

The seers of social science do not expect a sudden meeting of the minds in America anytime soon. The divisions are deep; passions are strong.

But this country fought a civil war and survived. The nation's heritage and culture mean too much to most citizens to tolerate perpetual divisiveness. And any outside threat always means that Americans will rally 'round the flag.

Even the lame duck in the White House is likely to fly again as his job-approval ratings dip and rise repeatedly over the next three and a half years.



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