February 20, 2004,
Surely you're not surprised that the Bush White House is beginning to move into high campaign mode. What should surprise you is that it took them so long.
Waiting until now has cost the president some popular support and has led to a spate of polls suggesting that Democratic frontrunner John Kerry would win the White House if the election were held today. That's all insanely speculative, of course. But there is evidence to suggest that Democrats have done some significant damage to the president's position.
In a Gallup poll released this week, which found Bush's job approval rating to be 51 percent, the number of Americans who believe the economy is declining is greater than it was just a few months ago. When asked last December, "What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?" 32 percent of those polled named economic problems. Of them, ten percent said jobs, and 17 percent said the economy in general. But when asked the same question last week, 46 percent said economic problems. Of them, 20 percent said jobs, and 21 percent said the economy in general.
To take another example: When asked in early January whether economic conditions in the country were getting better or worse, 66 percent said better, and 27 percent said worse. Asked the same question last week, 53 percent said better, and 40 percent said worse.
Now, the economy has not taken a turn for the worse in the last four weeks. It is, in fact, growing at a reasonably healthy rate. On a net basis, jobs are not being lost; they are being created. In other words, the news is simply not bad. So what accounts for the recent changes in the public's perception?
Could it be that some Americans began to view the economy more negatively at about the same time they began to tune in to the Democratic race for president?
Back in September, the candidates all nine of them could bash George Bush all they wanted and almost no one outside the political class noticed. But now, more and more voters are watching. The television networks are covering the Democratic race more intensively. And viewers are seeing a continuous loop of attacks on the president.
Just look at the most recent candidates' debate in Wisconsin. Kerry attacked Bush on jobs. John Edwards attacked Bush on jobs. Howard Dean attacked Bush on jobs. Dennis Kucinich attacked Bush on jobs. And Al Sharpton attacked Bush on jobs. (By the way, in case you missed it, the Reverend Al was at his very best on the issue, when he said, "I think we bring the jobs back, one, by canceling NAFTA two, by creating manufacturing jobs, three...by creating jobs." Now that's a jobs program.)
The day after the debate, Kerry even used Bush's visit to the Daytona 500 as an opportunity to attack Bush on jobs. "We don't need a president who just says, 'Gentlemen, start your engines," Kerry said Monday. "We need a president who says, 'America, let's start our economy and put people back to work.'"
Is it any wonder that Americans, listening to it all, think the jobs situation is getting worse?
Most comparisons of George W. Bush to his father, the first President Bush, are off the mark, but this does seem reminiscent of 1992, when Bill Clinton ousted the president's father by citing a health-care "crisis" that was not, in fact, a crisis.
The brilliance of today's Democratic strategy is that they have so far been able to use a single economic factor, employment, to convey the (incorrect) idea that the economy as a whole is in trouble. This week the Washington Post seemed to sense the problem with the Democrats' position when it reported that improvements in the economy as a whole may influence voters' choices more than anxiety about jobs.
"The booming housing market has given even struggling workers the ability to latch onto a tangible talisman of personal progress," reporter Jonathan Weisman wrote. "Wage growth has been nearly stagnant, but thanks to Bush's tax cuts, disposable income has risen. And after nine quarters of slow but steady growth, the economy as a whole is poised to take off, giving some shaky households a sense of optimism about the coming year."
That doesn't even mention that gains in the stock market, with the Dow above 10,500, allow millions of people to feel optimistic about their 401k investments.
Given all that good news, the lesson of the new Gallup poll is: Bush-bashing works. Say something over and over and over again, and get the media to repeat it over and over and over again, and some people will begin to believe it, even if it conflicts with their own experiences. Which suggests that George W. Bush better kick his campaign into high gear right now.
Byron York is also a columnist for The Hill, where a version of this first appeared.