President Bush's State of the Union address on Tuesday night marks the opening of a midterm election year eagerly anticipated by Democrats and fraught with worries for Republicans, whose hopes in November may depend in large part on how successfully Bush can turn around his troubled presidency.
After his reelection victory in 2004, Bush often pointed out that he would never again be on a ballot as a candidate. But the coming year in many ways represents another national campaign for the president, aimed at preserving the gains his party has made in the past five years, as well as rehabilitating a reputation that has come under brutal assault from the opposition in recent months.
There is no doubt that Bush intends to run this campaign as forcefully as if he were on the ballot himself. He ended 2005, the worst year of his presidency, with an aggressive defense of his Iraq policies, and he has begun the new year with an uncompromising justification of his policy of warrantless domestic surveillance.
Tuesday's speech, with its massive prime-time audience, may be the most important forum Bush has all year to try to seize the initiative from the Democrats and frame the election season on his terms. But he will be standing in the House as a far less formidable politician than when he stood on the same podium a year ago. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows Bush with a lower approval rating than any postwar president at the start of his sixth year in office -- with the exception of Richard M. Nixon, who was crippled by Watergate.
Bush's approval rating now stands at 42 percent, down from 46 percent at the beginning of the year, although still three percentage points higher than the low point of his presidency last November.
The poll also shows that the public prefers the direction Democrats in Congress would take the country as opposed to the path set by the president, that Americans trust Democrats over Republicans to address the country's biggest problems and that they strongly favor Democrats over Republicans in their vote for the House.
The political stakes this year are especially high. What happens will affect not only the final years of Bush's presidency, but also will shape what is likely to be an even bigger election for his successor in 2008. Republicans have been on the ascendancy throughout the Bush presidency, but they begin the year not only resigned to some losses in Congress but also fearful that, under a worst-case scenario, an eruption of voter dissatisfaction could cost them control of the House or Senate or both.
Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego, said the key from Bush's vantage point is maintaining near-universal support for the president from Republicans. Last fall, when Bush's approval ratings fell to their lowest point, he suffered erosion among Republicans, but later polls have shown that he regained some of that support. "As long as he can hold support of his own partisans, he can keep the Republicans in Congress from getting too nervous," Jacobson said.
Bush also has some intangible assets. The first is that Bush has proved to be a skilled and effective political candidate who beat the odds in the past and would like nothing better than to upset conventional assumptions again this year. The other is that Democrats must take maximum advantage of every opportunity because the number of truly competitive House districts is low by historical standards.
Bush won reelection in 2004 with a lower approval rating than any other reelected president of the post-World War II era, save for Harry S. Truman. Rhodes Cook, an independent political analyst, said Bush's overall approval rating may be less damaging politically than it was for other presidents. "His strength is in fundraising and mobilizing the base," Cook said. "He can still do both very well."
Democrats see the political landscape as the most favorable to them since Bush took office. They view the war in Iraq as a continuing political burden for the administration, and hope to reap gains on the corruption issue, epitomized by the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. "Any reasonable reading of the trends would suggest that Democrats can expect significant gains this November," said Paul Harstad, a Democratic pollster. "That includes historical patterns, Republican scandals and a growing realization of the insidious cost of unchallenged Republican rule."
But Bush and his team believe they can change the equation. White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove put Democrats on notice a week ago when he promised a campaign of sharp contrasts on national security, taxes and the economy, and judicial philosophy. That signaled a rerun of previous Bush campaigns, in which Republicans forced Democrats into a debate on national security and terrorism, polarized the electorate, and used those and other issues to mobilize and turn out rank-and-file Republicans in large numbers.
Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman offered a cautious overall forecast for the midterms, saying he expects a tough year and knows that the party in power often loses seats in midterm races. "We have a historical challenge to overcome," he said. "I believe we will overcome that. I believe we will maintain our majorities in the House and the Senate."
The 'six-year itch'
History appears to favor the Democrats. Midterm elections in the sixth year of a two-term presidency have proved particularly difficult for the party in the White House. Republicans suffered significant losses in the midterm elections of 1958, 1974 and 1986, the sixth year of presidency for Dwight Eisenhower, Nixon and Ronald Reagan, respectively. Democrats took a bath in 1966, the sixth year of the combined administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
But there was a notable anomaly. In 1998, aided by public backlash against Republican calls for impeachment, Democrats gained seats in the House and held even in the Senate in Bill Clinton's sixth year in office.
Whether that was an aberration or the disintegration of the pattern of the "six-year itch" will not be clear until November. Nor will it be clear, even if the Democrats gain nominal ground in November, whether that signals a broader shift away from the Republicans that could carry over to 2008 or was merely an outcome typical of midterm elections.
The Post-ABC News poll offers a revealing portrait of a restless electorate at the start of the campaign year. By 51 percent to 35 percent, Americans said they preferred to go in the direction outlined by congressional Democrats rather than the direction established by the president. On the eve of last year's State of the Union address, 45 percent said they preferred to follow the path of the president, compared with 39 percent who said they favored the Democrats' course.
By 54 percent to 38 percent, voters surveyed said they would vote for the Democratic candidate over the Republican candidate for the House in November. That is one of the largest margins favoring the Democrats in two decades, although the gerrymandered House districts mean that incumbents are safer today than they were in the past.
By 51 percent to 37 percent, Americans said they trust the Democrats more than the Republicans with the main problems facing the country over the next few years, the first time since spring 1992 that Democrats have gained more than 50 percent support on that question.
Four in 10 (43 percent) surveyed said they approve of the way Congress is doing its job, while 64 percent said they approve of the job their own member of the House is doing. In comparison, in March 1994, the year Republicans captured control of the House and Senate, approval of the Democratic-controlled Congress stood at 35 percent, with 62 percent approving the job their own House member was doing.
Democrats have gained ground in the past two months on two other measures. The public sees Democrats as more likely to stand up to lobbyists and special-interest groups, 46 percent to 27 percent. In December, Democrats held a lead of eight percentage points. Republicans still are viewed as having stronger leaders, but Democrats have narrowed that gap by more than half.
A total of 1,002 randomly selected adults were interviewed nationally Jan. 23-26 for the Post-ABC News survey. The margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus three percentage points.
In the latest poll, Bush received negative marks for his handling of Iraq, the federal budget deficit, ethics in government, prescription drugs for the elderly, the economy, immigration, health care and taxes. Only on terrorism did the poll find that more than 50 percent of Americans approved of his performance.
Where Bush has dropped significantly is among independent voters. His approval rating in the latest Post-ABC poll among independents is 37 percent. The Post-ABC News poll showed that Americans remain far from optimistic about the economy, despite steady growth. Forty percent called the economy good or excellent, down from 45 percent in December.
Democrats believe events on the ground, at home and abroad, will override political strategy and tactics this year. "If the economy behaves on the upside of the range and things go better than expected in Iraq, then Republicans have a fighting chance to limit their losses," said William A. Galston, a Clinton administration official now at the Brookings Institution. "If not, it's going to be a long, grim fall for the Republican Party."
Assistant polling director Claudia Deane contributed to this report.