WASHINGTON — I've been pondering what might be called the $64,000 political question of the day: How does a president hold on to a good public approval rating when bad things are happening things that you might think would cost him the trust and support of most Americans?
Of course, I'm referring to President Bush, who, according to highly regarded polls, has been weathering business scandals that sent the stock market tumbling and charges that Bush himself had been involved in unethical practices when he was in the business world a few years ago.
After the market had been plunging for six days, a friend of mine who is an acute political observer called me to say that I should expect Bush's approval ratings to plunge 20 points or more when the next polls came out. I agreed with him. It seemed logical that most presidents would have lost a lot of public support if they had been hit with the blows Bush was receiving.
My friend and I were soon to have a surprise. Both The Washington Post (July 17) and The New York Times (July 18) showed Bush still hanging on to an impressive public approval rating in the lower 70s. This was about the same poll standing he had held before the divulgence of outrageous corporate greed had dug deeply into public trust in business and had pushed the stock market into a steep decline.
The next morning, at breakfast, I was able to ask Mitch Daniels, head of the president's Office of Management and Budget: "Weren't you surprised that the corporate scandals and the public outrage about them hadn't, according to the polls, rubbed off much on Bush's popularity?" Mr. Daniels said he was surprised. He indicated that the president and those around him had been prepared for at least some drop in Bush's poll ratings.
Daniels was talking about a $165 billion deficit, which the American people seemed to be accepting as the logical response to the demands of war and not in any way eroding their backing of the country's chief executive.
A reporter at the breakfast said he was reminded of how President Reagan would jokingly refer to the deficit: "I never worry about the deficit: It's big enough to take care of itself."
Since those early polls there has been a relatively small decline in Bush's ratings. Within a few days, Newsweek was reporting that Bush was at 65 percent. Since then there have been several polls putting Bush between 65 and 70. When I called pollster John Zogby in the middle of last week he said he had just done a poll that showed Bush at 63 percent. "But," said Zogby, "in my ratings 63 percent is 'Excellent-Good.'"
But back to my original question: Why can Bush or any president keep doing well with the public during circumstances that would badly erode the approval rating of most presidents?
It's appropriate that we have just referred to Mr. Reagan, who, because of his ability to retain popularity in the face of happenings that should have eroded that support, was named by the press the "Teflon president."
Reagan was able to keep most Americans behind him even during the Iran-contra scandal, where he had to admit, belatedly, that he had been trading arms for hostages. It was real messy for Reagan. But the public stayed with him.
For some reason President Clinton was never called a "Teflon president." Yet he held strong public support, as registered in the polls, even when the so-called Monicagate scandal got him impeached.
This approval of Clinton came at the same time that this same public was indicating in the high percentiles that it didn't trust him. I could never figure out that apparent conflict in what the polls were finding.
Bush, it should be pointed out, is being viewed by the public (in the polls) as honest and trustworthy, despite recent charges that he benefited as a business executive from the same practices he now publicly criticizes.
My best guess is that the public makes a judgment of presidents that the polls don't catch. Americans size up a president and if they like his cut they stay with him even when he runs into adversity.
I think that's what happened with Reagan, Clinton, and now Bush. Bush earned that rating with the way he responded to the Sept. 11 crisis. And it still is holding him up.