Monday, December 05, 2005

The “Invitation Only” Presidency of George W. Bush

The “Invitation Only” Presidency of George W. Bush

By Michael A. Genovese and Lori Cox Han

Michael A. Genovese is Professor of Political Science and holds the Loyola Chair of Leadership Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Lori Cox Han is Professor and Chair of Political Science at Chapman University in Orange.

In order to govern effectively, presidents devise complex strategies for wooing the public. They do this because it is widely believed that if a president has high popularity ratings, moving the baroque system of government becomes a bit easier. In short, popularity greases the wheels of government.

A great deal of time is spent devising and implementing strategies for what presidential scholar Tom Cronin has called the “theatrical presidency,” and presidents use the bully pulpit, trips (both foreign and domestic), speeches, and symbolic gestures to draw attention to themselves. With that attention, they hope to gain popularity that can be converted into power. A popular president, it is believed, gets a better deal out of Congress than an unpopular one; a popular president gets better press than an unpopular one, and so it goes.

President Bush, whose popularity ratings were rather anemic in the early stages of his presidency, benefited from the reaction to the 9/11 tragedy, and a “rally ‘round the flag” effect catapulted his popularity into the stratosphere. At one point, Bush’s popularity was at 91 percent, an unheard of rating that only George H.W. Bush had ever achieved (during the first Gulf War). Of course, over time those inflated numbers have come back down to earth (as they did for his father as well leading into the 1992 election season—a rather unfortunate time for the elder Bush’s political fortunes). And now, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the federal government’s “unacceptable” response (Bush’s own words), the ongoing troubles in Iraq, a failed Social Security reform effort, the CIA leak scandal that has led at this point to the indictment of the vice president’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, and a host of other problems, the president’s numbers have hit an all-time low (36 percent, by one measure)....