In the fall of 2004 President George W. Bush faced re-election with his approval rating resting on the razor's edge. After reaching a peak of 90% in the aftermath of 9/11, Bush's approval rating steadily eroded under the pressure of an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq and public concerns over an economy that seemed to be in neutral. Bush was re-elected with 51% of the popular vote - a number that essentially matched his approval rating (it is a well understood axiom that incumbents rarely outperform their approval rating come election day). Bush argued in the days after his re-election that he had earned political capital and now intended to spend it on tax reform and Social Security reform. Alas, it was not to be. Just one year after winning re-election, George W. Bush saw his average approval fall to the upper 30% range. With the exception of a brief spike in early 2006, Bush never saw an average approval rating above 40% again and his post re-election agenda foundered.
Bush's experience between 2004 and 2005 has much to offer Barack Obama - and the president and his advisors should be worried.
First- let's explore a little political theory. In what would be his final scholarly work, Woodrow Wilson wrote in Constitutional Government on the tremendous leadership potential of American Presidents. "Let him once win the admiration and confidence of the country, and no other single force can withstand him, no combination of forces will easily overpower him... A President whom it trusts can not only lead it, but form it to his own views." Wilson believed that presidents were uniquely positioned to appeal for and gain unrivaled strength from public opinion. Indeed, a century later another political scientist named Jeffrey Tulis would write of the Two Constitutional Presidencies. Presidents derive status, authority, and limited explicit powers from the formal Constitution adopted over 200 years ago. But presidents are further empowered by the small "c" constitution of popular support. The ambiguous nature or Article II of the Constitution bestows upon presidents the potential to make his office "anything he has the sagacity and force to make it," again quoting Wilson.
A quick review of available data reveals that Presidential success in Congress is most closely correlated not with unified party control, but with public approval - popular presidents enjoy greater success regardless of partisan control of government.
So what does any of this have to do with Barack Obama now and George W. Bush in 2004/2005? Simple - there is a downside to the small "c" presidency. Although a presidency premised on the powers of Article II may be somewhat limited, the powers are founded in stone - they cannot be washed away except via constitutional amendment. The small "c" powers of public approval are, however, built on a foundation of sand. Wilson wrote "Let him once win the admiration and confidence of the country, and no other single force can withstand him, no combination of forces will easily overpower him." What Wilson failed to consider was what would happen should a President lose the admiration and confidence of the people. Can any combination of forces help to restore the loss? Once lost, can a presidency based on public approval and confidence continue to govern?
In 2005, George W. Bush lost the public's confidence. His foundation of sand was washed away by the force of hurricane Katrina, an unpopular war, and an accelerating investigation into allegations that senior members of the Bush administration had "outed" covert CIA operative Valerie Plame in retribution for her husband Joe Wilson's public criticisms of President Bush's claims that Iraq had sought uranium for a nuclear weapon program. The one-two punch of Katrina and the Plame investigation fundamentally eroded public confidence that Bush was trustworthy - regardless of whether one agreed with his policies. Bush never recovered the public confidence. Republicans experienced historic losses in the 2006 and 2008 election and Bush left office with an average approval rating of 32%. He spent his second term largely relying on the limited but secure Constitutional powers of his office - namely the veto - to defend his first term policies.
But Bush was lucky, his foundation of support collapsed during his second term. Obama is facing a similar collapse and he has not yet reached the midpoint of his first term. After several legislative successes -that have proven to be quite unpopular - Obama has seen a significant decline in his approval rating. His peak of 65.5% in January of 2009 has fallen to a point consistently hovering around 48%. The President now faces his own Katrina-Plame one-two punch with the ongoing BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico and the growing press and Congressional inquiries into behind-the-scenes White House efforts to discourage Democratic primary challenges in Pennsylvania and Colorado - the accusation being that members of the White House violated federal law by offering federal jobs to potential challengers to the candidates preferred by the White House.
The handling of the BP oil leak raises public doubts about the President Obama's competence, the election meddling raises doubts about his integrity - just as Katrina and the Plame investigation did for Bush. Barack Obama's presidency was very much premised on a foundation of public support based upon a belief in his integrity and competence - qualities the public sought by the end of the Bush years. The President's supporters will protest that there is little the President can do about the oil leak and that nothing untoward happened with regard to the Pennsylvania and Colorado elections - that may be, but much the same was said about Katrina and the Plame investigation.
All of this speaks to a larger narrative regarding the American Presidency - it is an office with great potential for power and the public expects president to present and pursue an agenda with vigor. But that awesome power is tempered by the reality that public support can and often is fickle. The temptation is great for a president to rely solely on the promise of public support, but if lost what power then does a president have? The President and his advisors wrongly believed that foundation was rock solid. Over the course of the coming weeks they are likely to see that belief soundly challenged.