America still divided on Bush, but less bitter

Some months ago, early in the presidential campaign, I wrote a column in which I cited the sage observations of the British historian Denis Brogan, who, after a thorough study of the US political scene, concluded this: The American voters engaged in a fierce conflict of accusations during their presidential campaigns and then, "after letting off steam" during these months of contention, they were somehow able to come together behind the newly elected president.

So it seems a timely question: Has this healing process come about in this last election? My answer is a guarded "yes." The open hostility toward George W. Bush has died down, probably in part from exhaustion, and an uneasy peace has set in, with Democrats holding their fire as they eye, with less than trust, the man who beat them once again.

But Mr. Bush clearly remains a president who is presiding over a divided nation. I talked to the pollster John Zogby about this and he said his postelection polls showed that "most people think the president is on the wrong track."

Since then, Bush's State of the Union speech, his meetings with world leaders, and the successful election in Iraq have pushed up his public approval ratings a bit. But Mr. Zogby emphasizes the importance of his earlier poll that showed Bush getting "no spike" - no increased public backing - out of the election. Zogby added that Bush's 52 percent approval rating, right after the election and just before his inaugural address, was the lowest for a just-elected president since Richard Nixon.

It's the differences over the Iraq war, of course, that drive the intense feeling against Bush. Zogby puts it this way: "When people are asked whether they support the war, they will say they support the war. But if asked, 'Was the Iraq war worth it?' Fifty-six percent of the public will say it wasn't."

But in my view, the antipresident feeling was far greater during the Vietnam War period - with this passionate opposition being directed first against Lyndon Johnson and then Nixon. This public hostility forced Johnson to abandon his reelection effort. And it was this same sentiment - with anti-Nixon feeling becoming intensified by the Watergate scandal - that caused Nixon to resign rather than face impeachment. Actually, I've never observed more public hatred of a president than I did in my youth when the voters were holding Herbert Hoover responsible for the Great Depression. Those were days when jobless, hungry Americans all across the nation were crying out in despair.

And here's an observation that may surprise some readers: The man who beat Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was also deeply divisive. Yes, he racked up those landslide victories from those who loved him. And the memory today is of a beloved president. But there were millions of voters, too, who hated Roosevelt - seeing in FDR's reforms an intrusion into their individual rights.

And while it's true that Bush remains a divisive president, he, too, has his millions of supporters who stand by him and love him and who - let's not forget - gave him a second term.

As he did when he first took office, Bush is promising that he will strive to unite the nation. He's been meeting more with congressional and foreign leaders - and the press - to show that he's listening to others. And he appears to be turning to the use of the carrot - and not the stick - in his relations with people and nations.

I have been traveling a bit in the past few weeks, where I have been able to talk to - and, more important, listen to - a lot of people from around the country. I've heard some criticism of the president - also a lot of support. But I heard no anger. I like to think that I was observing - particularly as I kibitzed among the breakfast groups at the country restaurant where I, each day, had my cereal and orange juice - a sign that the animosity against Bush is lessening, the people becoming less divided.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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