Few presidents are popular while they’re in office. Even less so in their second term.
Even John Kennedy, who barely won an election over Richard "I-am-not-a-crook" Nixon, didn’t enjoy overwhelming popularity when he was in office. History was kind to him because he was martyred. If he'd had a chance for a second term, he would have been totally ineffective.
His successor, Lyndon Johnson, realized that and got out while the getting was good.
George Bush is currently experiencing that phenomenon. His popularity numbers are in the toilet and he still has a couple more years of lame-duckness ahead of him.
When interpreting popularity numbers, it helps to remember that there are really three types of voters in America. There is the left, the right, and the middle. And they are approximately evenly divided. About a third of us are basically liberal, about a third are basically conservative, and the rest are somewhere in the middle.
Which brings us to the fallacy of popularity polls in presidential politics. When a politician says they don’t pay much attention to the polls, that usually means they are lying. But at the same time, a politician that is really true to his principals shouldn’t worry about polls for two good reasons. First, it’s a game he can’t win. And second, his job should be to serve his constituents, not to be “popular”.
The biggest problem with polls of this type is that they ask a question that is usually interpreted differently by either side of the political spectrum. The basic question is usually something like this:
“Do you generally approve or disapprove of the job that (politician “X”) is doing?”
No matter what kind of job he is “doing”, those on the opposite side of the spectrum are always going to answer “disapprove”. After all, that’s the whole idea of politics, isn’t it? To make the other guy look like an idiot? No matter how well a politician is performing, he usually won’t score much more than 70% because a third of the people are going to hate him no matter what. In school, that’s usually about a C-minus.
But here’s the dirty little secret. Many people on the same side are also going answer “disapprove”. Why? Because the guy isn’t enough. He’s not liberal enough or he’s not conservative enough. Kinda hard to win that way, huh?
Some of Bill Clinton’s harshest critics while he was in office was from the far left, who thought he had sold out his principles to the Republican-led Congress, especially on issues such as Welfare reform and nafta.
And many critics of Bush are from the far right, saying that he has sold out his constituency on issues such as limited government and border security.
Remember those thoughts the next time you look at Bush’s — or any president’s — numbers hovering below 50%. Many times, that’s not a sign of a president not doing a good job. It’s just one that is meandering too much in the middle while pleasing nobody on the fringes.