Bush’s shrinking popularity

There may have been moments during their summit at his family’s compound in Kennebunkport, Maine when President Bush might have looked with envy on his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, whose popularity at home guarantees him vast influence even as he prepares to leave office just nine months from now. Not so for Bush, whose public approval ratings, according to polls released in just the past week, have reached all-time lows and whose influence — even over his own party — appears to be declining at warp speed.

The latter phenomenon was demonstrated to devastating effect last week when 37 of the Senate’s 49 Republicans deserted the president on a critical vote that appears to have doomed Bush’s hopes for comprehensive immigration reform. The vote marked the defeat of the most important and probably the easiest of his second term’s four top domestic priorities that also included changing the social security system, easing taxes, and legislation designed to discourage tort litigation and class actions.

The week began with a declaration of independence by two key Republican senators, former Foreign Relations Committee chairman Richard Lugar and George Voinovich, over Bush’s determination to maintain his “surge” strategy in Iraq beyond next fall. The week ended with the expiration on Friday of Bush’s five-year-old “fast-track” authority to negotiate new trade agreements and a vow by the Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives to oppose a pending trade deal with South Korea and another with Colombia. Renewing fast-track authority, which permits the president to submit new trade accords to Congress for an up-or-down vote without the possibility of any amendments, was another top administration priority that now appears to have fallen by the wayside.

Cheney’s own approval ratings, like Bush’s, have dropped to historical lows. Just 28% said they approved of his handling of his job in a CBS News poll taken late last week, down from 35% in early 2006, and a high of 56% in August 2002, the same month that he launched the administration’s own campaign to rally support for invading Iraq. The same CBS poll found Bush at a record low of 27%. Fox News reported its all-time low last week at 31%.

While vehement right-wing Republican opposition to the immigration bill helped explain the Bush’s latest plunge in the polls, Iraq remains the single most important factor to the president’s unpopularity. In last week’s CBS poll, 23% of respondents said they approved of his handling of the war, while 70%, including one-third of all self-identified Republicans, said they disapproved. Moreover, a whopping 77% of respondents said the war was going either “somewhat” (30%) or “very badly” (47%).

A record 40% said all US troops should be withdrawn, while another 26% said they favoured decreasing the number of troops there now. A CNN poll taken a few days before showed similar numbers. With elections 16 months away, Republican incumbents are increasingly aware that Bush/Cheney has become a serious drag on their political aspirations. And,

as the election draws near, the pressure to break

with the White House — absent a major change of course, at least in Iraq — will become irresistible, just as it did last week on the immigration bill. — IPS