As his ratings sink below 40 percent and he even loses his grip on the Republican base, President Bush faces a crucial test: To succeed in his final three years in office, he has got to work much, much harder at maintaining popularity than he is right now.
To avoid lame-duck status, he has to manifest the same effort and maintain the same schedule in 2006, '07, and '08 that he did in '03 and '04.
George W. Bush is not lazy; he works hard at the job of president. But not at the job of regaining his popularity —
perhaps out of an old-school belief that popularity is for elections. But this mistakes the nature of modern American politics —
where popularity is for every day, and those who lose it are destined to twist in the wind.
If Bush doesn't get his act together and begin to work hard at building popular support, his self-indulgence will land him in ever-deeper misery. His ratings will stay stagnant; then he'll lose one or both houses of Congress —
and spend his final two years in office dodging opposition bullets, subpoenas, perhaps even impeachment. It will mean personal misery for this good man, and leave a cloud on his legacy that will take years to erase.
All because he doesn't want to do what he must —
get up every day and go out and speak to America.
President Bill Clinton kept his job rating over 60 percent through all the days of Monica and impeachment. It had nothing to do with a good economy; as Bush is finding out, a growing GDP doesn't guarantee growing approval ratings. Clinton went before the nation every day with a new speech, an executive order, a proposal, a bill signing or some other media event.
He didn't just recycle his old proposals. Each day, he unearthed a new idea or initiative to keep his daily majority. He knew that without it, with an opposition Congress, he was a goner.
His initiatives were widely varied: a rating system to help parents anticipate TV content; school renovations; clearing out decaying public housing projects; increased college scholarships; lower FHA closing fees; national databases for child abusers; anti-tobacco initiatives; expansion of family and medical leave; job creation for welfare mothers —
the list was endless. An entire White House policy apparatus was charged with churning out the initiatives.
At first, Press Secretary Mike McCurry objected to the furious pace, contending that we should have only one major event each week rather than the daily prattle of proposals. But the polling showed that each day's initiative got the attention of a quarter to a third of voters and played a key role in keeping Clinton's majority in line.
My guess is that Karl Rove would like to put the president on this kind of schedule, but that the Bushes don't see the point when he can't run for re-election. But you need a daily majority to stay in power. You may hold the office until the end of your term (maybe), but you'll have no power if your ratings aren't topping 50 percent. You get zapped by opportunistic infections like Harriet Miers, Dubai ports and Cheney shootings. Molehills take you down and you have no resistance to infection.
Bush needs to tell his political team to start churning out events, as they did before the 2004 election, every day, every week, every month. His presidency's future depends upon it.
Bush cannot afford the self-indulgence of not working as hard as Clinton did to keep his daily majority.