APS News

Inside the Beltway: A Washington Analysis

President's Waning Popularity Emboldens Critics

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

Michael S. LubellIt doesn't rank with the San Andreas fault, but cracks are evident on the banks of the Potomac. For the first time in two years, President Bush's re-elect numbers tilted toward a Democrat, according to a Zogby poll taken in late August. In Washington, which had grown accustomed to apparent White House invincibility, this was a seismic event.

From a high of 82%, two weeks after 9/11, the President's approval rating has slipped to just over 50%, about where it was before the terrorist attacks. Administration critics on Capitol Hill, whose silence for many months had baffled and angered rank and file Democrats, have found new voice.

Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont, whose sharp denunciation of White House economic policies and the war with Iraq had earlier earned him the approbation "Darling of the Left," is suddenly main stream and is leading the Democratic pack of presidential hopefuls by a wide margin in New Hampshire, which kicks off the presidential primary season on January 27. And two of his rivals, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and Missouri Representative Richard Gephardt, have begun to pile on with stinging criticisms of the Bush Administration's foreign and domestic policies.

Even Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, Al Gore's 2000 running mate, who had stood shoulder to shoulder with the President on Iraq and on the faith-based initiative, has squared off with the White House over the environment and taxes.

But Bush's critics are not just the Democrats who are vying for a shot at the presidency in 2004. As the death toll of American troops keeps mounting in post-Saddam Iraq, some Republican heavyweights have begun to break ranks with the White House as well, over its handling of foreign affairs. Count three Senate committee chairmen among them: John Warner of Virginia-Armed Services, John McCain of Arizona-Commerce, Science and Transportation, and Richard Lugar of Indiana-Foreign Relations. For now, GOP congressional criticism of White House domestic policies has been relatively muted. But if the tide of federal red ink grows into a tsunami, as the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office now predicts, and if the unemployment rate proves itself strongly resistant to supply-side economics in the short term, as many Wall Street analysts say, look for Capitol Hill Republicans to distance themselves from the President as the 2004 election draws closer.

Also look for more Administration officials to exit. Earlier this year, the Bush team embarked on an economic make-over when Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill and National Economic Council Chairman Lawrence B. Lindsey departed. Several months later, Glenn Hubbard, Chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisors, left to resume his academic post at Columbia University. And in the late spring, Mitch Daniels, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, who had been a lightning rod for bipartisan congressional criticism of White House financial policies, resigned to run for governor of his home state of Indiana.

The exodus continued in June with the departure of Christie Todd Whitman, the Administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, a New Jersey moderate who was a poor fit for a conservative White House from the outset. Her replacement, Utah Governor Mike Leavitt, is more suited to a presidential campaign that is certain to appeal to the westward-looking, right-wing core constituency of the GOP.

Although his poll numbers are sinking, don't count Bush out for 2004. With a bankroll that is expected to exceed $200 million by the time the campaign gets into high gear, the President will be a formidable adversary for even the strongest Democrat - and so far, his opposition field appears pretty weak. So where does this leave science in the coming year, when Republicans control all branches of the federal government?

Inside the Beltway, it's no secret that President Bush is far from a techie dweeb. Unlike his 2000 opponent, Al Gore, who was the prime promoter of the Internet when he was a member of the United States Senate, Bush, according to White House cognoscenti, is downright uneasy when he's in the presence of almost any member of the scientific elite.

Still, he's a politician with a politician's thirst for elective success. And therein lies a scientific opening. With the tech workforce accounting for 10 million votes, the White House must pay attention to a standard theorem of political calculus: don't alienate a potential voting bloc if you can possibly avoid it.

The budgetary stars may be in perverse alignment, but the White House must have its political telescope trained on the voting populace, if it wants to prevail in 2004. And scientists could make themselves a force to be reckoned with.


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