Other presidents have recovered from ratings slumps like the one George W. Bush is in right now: Dwight Eisenhower came back after the Sherman Adams scandal; Ronald Reagan rebounded after Iran-Contra; Bill Clinton triumphed after Monica Lewinsky.
Republican strategists say Bush, too, has time to snap out of a three-month run of bad luck and setbacks, including GOP losses Tuesday in gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey.
Still, a comeback will be tough, and will get increasingly tougher the closer the 2006 midterm elections come, strategists in both parties agree.
Bush might want look back to successful predecessors for pointers. He could shake up his White House staff, as Eisenhower and Reagan did in their troubled second terms. Or he could follow Clinton’s lead and engage in a flurry of domestic and foreign policy initiatives.
But the clock is running. And Bush may already have passed the point of no return, suggested Paul C. Light, a professor of public policy at New York University.
“Unless Bush and his advisers do something dramatic to reposition the administration and stop the slide in public approval, they’re going to find they have very few friends who want to come to the White House, let alone friends who want them to come to their districts,” Light said. “And that’s about the worst possible position for a president to be in.”
Some presidents tried but failed to mount successful comebacks. Nixon wasn’t able to recover from Watergate and was forced to resign in August 1974, a year and a half into the second term he won by a landslide. Presidents Ford, Carter and George H.W. Bush never recovered from their slumps — and were denied new terms by voters.
Democratic Presidents Truman and Lyndon Johnson, both hobbled by unpopular wars — Korea for Truman, Vietnam for Johnson — declined to seek re-election.
Bush has been buffeted by the war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, soaring fuel prices, a failed effort to revamp Social Security, the botched Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers, investigations of top Republican leaders and budget setbacks on Capitol Hill, and the indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff.
“Presidents always get in trouble in second terms. He’s in more trouble than most,” said Steffen Schmidt, professor of political science at Iowa State University.
“When bad luck comes along, you’ve got to have a lot of momentum and a lot of forward motion. But Bush didn’t do a lot of things that would have gotten him through those moments,” Schmidt said. “When the hurricanes hit, when Katrina hit in particular, he already had lost momentum. And he slammed into a wall.”
White House shakeup proposed
Bush’s approval rating is at the lowest of his presidency — 37 percent in the most recent AP-Ipsos poll and at similar levels in comparable polls.
Johnson, Reagan and Clinton also slipped into the mid-to-high 30s at some point during their terms. Truman, Nixon, Carter and George H.W. Bush saw their numbers slump into the 20s, with Truman’s at one point dipping to 23 percent.
Some Republican advisers have proposed a major shakeup of Bush’s White House staff as part of any comeback plan. His top political adviser, Karl Rove, escaped charges from the federal grand jury that indicted Cheney aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby. But Rove remains under investigation, and under a cloud — making him an easy target for Democrats.
Eisenhower was forced to accept the resignation of his top aide, Sherman Adams, in 1958 after Adams was accused of accepting gifts from a textile manufacturer in exchange for regulatory favors. Yet even with the 1960 U-2 spy plane controversy, Eisenhower’s approval ratings snapped back into the 60s as he neared the end of his term.
Reagan replaced his chief of staff and his national security adviser in 1987 after his administration confirmed it had been selling weapons to Iran, with profits going to anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua. His approval rating when he left office rebounded to around 60 percent.
Clinton proposed an ambitious agenda in his 1998 State of the Union address, a week after an investigation began into his relationship with White House intern Lewinsky. He traveled extensively. And his approval ratings rose to as high as 70 percent even as the Republican-controlled House voted to impeach him. He was acquitted in early 1999 by the Senate.
White House officials disputed suggestions that Bush could prematurely become a lame-duck political liability for Republicans on next year’s ballot. But GOP national chairman Ken Mehlman conceded that, while Bush loves to help congressional candidates, in some cases the candidates themselves “believe it’s better if he didn’t.”
Former Nixon speechwriter Stephen Hess cautioned it’s always dangerous to write the obituary of prominent politicians, recalling Nixon’s 1968 comeback after losing the presidency in 1960 and the California governorship in 1962.
Bush still has three years in office, “and three years in the life of a president is an eternity,” Hess said.