Americans don't like President Bush personally much anymore, either

By Steven Thomma
Knight Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON - It's not just the way he's doing his job. Americans apparently don't like President Bush personally much anymore, either.

A drop in his personal popularity, as measured by several public polls, has shadowed the decline in Bush's job-approval ratings and weakened his political armor when he and his party need it most.

Losing that political protection - dubbed "Teflon" when Ronald Reagan had it - is costing Bush what the late political scientist Richard Neustadt called the "leeway" to survive hard times and maintain his grip on the nation's agenda. Without it, Bush is a more tempting target for political enemies. And members of his party in Congress are less inclined to stand with him.

"When he loses likeability, the president loses the benefit of the doubt," said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Iowa. "That makes it much harder for him to steer."

Aides in the president's circle say Bush still has it. They suggest that his likeability will serve as a get-out-of-trouble card no matter how mad people get about the war in Iraq or other woes.

"The American people like this president," White House political guru Karl Rove said last week. "People like him. They respect him. He's somebody they feel a connection with. But they're just sour right now on the war. And that's the way it's going to be. And we will fight our way through."

Rove said he based his confidence on a private poll done for the Republican National Committee that showed Bush's personal approval rating higher than 60 percent, far above his job approval. "The polls I believe are the polls that get run through the RNC," Rove said. "I look at the polls all the time."

The Republican National Committee wouldn't release a copy of the poll. Spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt said she couldn't explain why public polls show a decline in Bush's personal popularity except to say that, "you can ask a poll question four different ways and get four different answers."

Six public polls in recent weeks showed the opposite of Rove's account - that Bush's personal approval ratings have dropped since he was re-elected in 2004:

-A recent Gallup poll for USA Today showed that 39 percent had a favorable opinion of Bush, while 60 percent had an unfavorable opinion. In mid-November 2004, 60 percent had a favorable opinion and 39 percent unfavorable.

-Pollster John Zogby found 42 percent with a favorable opinion and 55 percent unfavorable. In November 2004, it was 58 percent favorable, 40 percent unfavorable.

-A poll for CBS and the New York Times showed that 29 percent had a favorable opinion of Bush, while 55 percent had an unfavorable opinion.

"The president's public perception problem is not only about his dismal job performance, but also his striking lack of personal favorability," said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg.

Personal favorability can encompass many things in the minds of voters: character, respect, warmth, kinship, even whether a voter would want to have a beer with a politician. Or in the case of the teetotaling Bush, a soda.

Bush has lost ground on most of those measures.

Gallup, for example, found drops in the number of people who think that Bush is honest and trustworthy, that he shares their values and that he cares about people like them.

Personal popularity can swing elections and affect governing.

Ask Al Gore, whose wooden personality likely cost him votes in the 2000 campaign against the warmer Bush.

"Likeability certainly was an issue in 2000," said Chris Lehane, an aide to Gore in the vice president's office and later in the campaign. He noted, however, that he thought job approval ratings were a better measure of voter sentiment. He also said that likeability was more important in a time of seeming peace and prosperity than it will be in the next election. With the country at war, he said, voters will be less interested in personality and more concerned with competence.

Or ask former California Gov. Gray Davis, a cool and standoffish politician who had no reserve of personal goodwill when his state faced a budget crisis. He fell in a recall election to charismatic movie actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Popularity can help a politician govern.

Reagan, for example, enjoyed a personal bond with Americans that helped him when the country went through a wrenching recession and when his administration was rocked by the Iran-Contra scandal.

"It protected him," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California.

"Look at where Bush is today. You could argue that, even though his job approval rating was low, if he had a significantly higher personal approval rating, congressional Republicans would not have strayed as far from him."

(The Gallup Poll of 1,011 adults was conducted April 28-30 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. The CBS-New York Times poll of 1,241 adults was conducted May 4-8 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. The Zogby poll surveyed 979 likely voters May 12-16 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.)