WaPo Concedes Bush Getting Job Done, But Knocks His Low Approval Ratings

Peter Baker at the Washington Post writes today that President Bush has been achieving some of his important objectives lately, but still has low approval ratings:

The war in Iraq seems to have taken a turn for the better and the opposition at home has failed in all efforts to impose its own strategy. North Korea is dismantling its nuclear program. The budget deficit is falling. A new attorney general has been confirmed despite objections from the left.

After more than two years of being buffeted by one political disaster after another, President Bush and his strategists think they may finally be getting back at least a bit of their footing. While still facing enormous challenges, from the crisis in Pakistan to the backlash over children’s health care, they hope Bush has arrested his downward spiral and established a better foundation for the remainder of his time in office.

In many ways, the shifting political fortunes may owe as much to the absence of bad news as to any particular good news. No one lately has been indicted, botched a hurricane relief effort or shot someone in a hunting accident. Instead, pictures from Iraq show people returning to the streets as often as they show a new suicide bombing. And Bush has bolstered morale inside the West Wing and rallied his Republican base through a strategy of confrontation with the Democratic Congress, built on the expansive use of his veto pen.

Yet none of this has particularly impressed the public at large, which remains skeptical that anything meaningful has changed and still gives Bush record-low approval ratings.

What I find interesting about the Washington Post piece is not only what it says about President Bush, but also what it says about the author and publisher, White House correspondent Peter Baker, and the Washington Post.

It’s a given by now that President Bush is a man who cares about certain principles and is willing to stick by them even when his view is unpopular. He is determined to do everything in his power to prevent another successful terror attack on American soil. He cares about the unborn. He believes in spreading democracy around the world.

If Bush put popularity before principle, he could have bowed to public pressure and cut and run from Iraq long ago. That certainly would have been the path of least resistance. He could have allowed federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Speaking in general terms, Bush cares far more about about whether policies he believes in are being implemented than whether he is being liked.

That’s what I admire about the man, don’t you? He’s not a Clintonian who has to lift a finger to check the prevailing political winds — and consult his list of donors — before he can make a decision.

Bush may not be another Ronald Reagan in the degree of his commitment to principles and certainly not in his commitment to conservatism, but he’s a man with a conscience who’s not afraid to use it.

Today’s article is interesting for what it says about Peter Baker and the Washington Post.

Consider this telling line from the excerpt above:

The disconnect highlights his dilemma heading into the last year of his administration: Can anything short of a profound event repair an unpopular president’s public standing so late in his tenure? Can tactical victories in Washington salvage a wounded presidency?

Peter Baker and the Washington Post seem to think Bush is in a race against time to be well liked before his presidency is over. Indeed, Baker assumes that being liked is the very definition of success in the presidency: “Can tactical victories in Washington salvage a wounded presidency?”

First of all, winning the Iraq war is not a “tactical victory in Washington.” Nor is keeping North Korea from stockpiling nuclear weapons. These are not tactical victories in some more important political skirmish; they are major substantive achievements in themselves. If the Bush Administration has achieved either goal (I’m skeptical about North Korea’s cooperation), his presidency doesn’t need “salvaging.” It has justified itself. The very fact that the Washington Post describes these successes (among others) as “tactical victories” tells me that the Post thinks Bush’s “real” battle is not to save the world from terrorism or from nuclear armageddon, but simply to ensure his party’s re-election, if not his own. Such short-sighted political myopia can be deadly in this age of global Islamic terrorism.

To imply that increased public approval ratings would “salvage” Bush’s presidency is bizarre. The success of a presidency is not defined by public approval ratings, particularly while the president is still in office. A leader must often do what is unpopular in order to do what is right. If he has chosen wisely, future generations will thank him.

Clearly Peter Baker and the Washington Post are using an entirely different yardstick than I am to judge Bush’s presidency. I probably shouldn’t be surprised, given that Peter Baker has waxed eloquent about the Clintons before, describing them as dazzling comets. Given that both of the Clintons have always lived by popularity ratings, perhaps we have our answer as to why Peter Baker is so fixated on President Bush’s popularity. It’s the one “accomplishment” the Clintons have.

It’s a shame, because America deserves, and needs, better. We don’t need the presidency to be a 4-year-long or 8-year-long popularity contest. We need a president who is unafraid of challenging, and trying to change, domestic and world opinion. Clearly, popularity makes it easier to get things done, and there’s no point in going out of one’s way to ruffle feathers, but a president with no solid backbone of unwavering principles to rely upon is not one whom I would consider successful.

Public approval ratings have their place. They certainly matter when a candidate is running for office or standing for re-election. Low approval ratings may sometimes be a trailing sign of failed policies. But if we all concede that worthy goals are being achieved — promoting nuclear disarmament, winning wars in Afghanistan and Iraq against vicious, merciless enemies — hauling out popularity polls as some sort of continuing indictment of the president is petty and short sighted.

Of course I don’t agree with everything President Bush has done, and I’ll bet you don’t either, but I give thanks again and again that he is a man of principle — and generally reasonable principles at that. By contrast, the eight long years of Bill Clinton’s presidency were simply painful. Almost everything he proposed was either a step in the wrong direction or a political calculation designed to juice up his approval numbers. We don’t need another calculator and dissembler in the White House. We don’t need someone who thinks the Oval Office is a place for play, not work. We don’t need someone whose policy positions are subject to change every time Gallup or Zogby releases a new poll.

Thank God, literally, for leaders throughout human history who have had the courage of their convictions, and whose convictions are worthy of that courage. Even when I disagree with them, I can respect them for their decency.

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Gina Cobb’s website is at GINA COBB

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