Homeland security reorganization may be good politics

While there were a multitude of sound policy reasons for President Bush's decision to centralize most federal homeland security functions in a single department, it looks like it may have been a bit of good politics as well.

Most national polling since the first of the year has shown the president's approval ratings in a gradual decline, at a rate of roughly 2 points a month, starting out at 80 percent in two combined January surveys by Ipsos-Reid/Cook Political Report and dropping to 74 percent in March and to 71 percent in May.

Disapproval ratings rose from 18 percent in January to 24 percent in March and to 26 percent in May. The Gallup Organization's polling reflected a smaller drop, from 84 percent in early January to 77 percent in their late May polling, with disapproval ratings going from 12 percent at the beginning of the year to 17 percent at the end of May.

Then the last Gallup Poll, taken before the president's Thursday night announcement of a new Homeland Security Department, showed his approval rating dropping 7 points in a week, to 70 percent, the lowest since Sept. 11, with his disapproval rating up 6 points to 23 percent, the highest since the September tragedy.

While it is dangerous to read too much into any single poll, what in effect happened is that the Gallup polling simply came into line with most other surveys that showed the president in the low 70's and on the verge of dropping into the 60's--still good numbers, but no longer considered in the same "stratospheric" category as before.

There also was an intangible that seemed to be taking hold before the announcement. Pollsters and other political operatives had begun suggesting that there was a certain uneasiness among Americans in recent weeks that things did not seem to be in control. There was a certain frustration from the endless warnings of upcoming terrorist acts against our country and that we still had not managed to track down Osama bin Laden.

In some private polling--but not in the Ipsos-Reid/Cook Political Report samplings--there was also a drop in "right direction" numbers, with the "wrong track" column surging. While it was not directly rubbing off on the president, it was not what a president's advisers would like to see happening.

With the reorganization announcement, Bush came across as proactive and in charge. While Democrats could carp that he took too long, the move appears to be enough to at least temporarily stabilize the decline.

In the combined May 17-19 and June 7-9 Ipsos-Reid/Cook Political Report national polls, of a total of 1,565 registered voters, 72 percent approved of the job Bush was doing, up a point from the previous pair of surveys in May.

But among the 790 interviews that were conducted Friday through Sunday nights, his approval rating hit 74 percent, a gain that is inside the 2.5-point margin of error. It is therefore not statistically significant, but still certainly welcomed by Republicans who have lately seen the arrow pointed pretty consistently downward.

Looking deeper into the survey, there was little change. In the most recent pair of surveys, 54 percent said the country was headed in the right direction, same as the two May surveys, with 40 percent saying wrong track. Again, no change.

In terms of handling the economy, 63 percent approved the job the president was doing, the same as in May, with 34 percent disapproving, down a point from May.

In "handling domestic issues like health care, education, the environment and energy," 55 percent approved of his performance, down a point from May, with 42 percent disapproving, up 1 point. In "handling foreign policy issues and the war on terrorism," 75 percent approved, up 2 points from May, with 22 percent disapproving, down 2 points.

When given three choices--that if the election were held today were they inclined to vote to re-elect Bush as president, would consider someone else or would definitely vote for someone else--48 percent said they would definitely vote for Bush, no change from May. Another 26 percent said they would consider someone else, up a point, while 23 percent said they would definitely vote against him, down a point.

Republicans continued to hold a narrow lead on the generic congressional ballot test, this time a 44 percent to 40 percent advantage in the two most recent surveys, up from 43-40 percent in the two May surveys.

While this does not necessarily indicate that Republicans will hold the House, it does suggest that the dynamics necessary for Democrats to win a disproportionate share of the closest races, which they need to do to completely close the gap, do not now exist, although the election is now just a bit under five months away.

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