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Waiting for the Rebound

Anyone who expected that President Bush could fix his Katrina problems by making five visits to the damaged region, delivering a strong televised speech to the nation, launching a belated all-hands-on-deck effort by his administration, and promising to spend untold billions of dollars was surely disappointed by the results of the latest Gallup poll for CNN/USA Today.

The poll of 818 adults, conducted September 16-18, put Bush's overall job-approval rating at 40 percent and his disapproval rating at 58 percent. Those findings are pretty consistent with his pre-speech standing in other national polls. Clearly, the president is in a hole, and getting out won't be easy.

In the 13 months until the midterm elections, Bush will have countless chances to try to improve his standing. From this point forward, however, he can expect to have considerably less control over the agenda, both on Capitol Hill and within his own administration, than he had during his first four and a half years in the White House.

Katrina and its budgetary fallout have scrambled the plans that Bush and Republican congressional leaders originally had for this fall's legislative agenda. Additional tax cuts, the alternative minimum tax, and permanent elimination of the estate tax -- issues that have been holding the Republican coalition together -- will be difficult, or impossible, to push to the front burner. The prospect of unpopular spending cuts and a ballooning federal budget deficit are also likely to sap the administration's strength. Fiscal conservatives hate to see red ink flood the federal budget.

Moreover, with every passing day, Bush, like other second-term presidents, becomes a little more of a lame duck, has a little less sway over his own party's members on the Hill, and is a little less feared by the opposition.

Bush's numbers are weak at a stage in his presidency when most of his predecessors' numbers were strong: President Eisenhower had a 59 percent approval rating at this point in his tenure. President Reagan had 60 percent approval, and President Clinton had 58 percent. President Nixon's approval rating dropped to 33 percent during September of his fifth year in office, eventually hitting a low of 24 percent, but that isn't a useful comparison, because Nixon had become mired in the Watergate scandal by then.

Eisenhower's standing didn't take its biggest hit until 1958, when his top assistant, Sherman Adams, was found to have accepted a vicuna coat and several hundred thousand dollars from a New Hampshire businessman, an old friend. The scandal dropped Eisenhower to 48 percent approval in the Gallup Poll, but he immediately popped back into the 50s and 60s, and never dipped again. Eisenhower's approval rating at the time of the 1958 midterm elections was 52 percent, but his party took a drubbing, losing 48 seats in the House and 13 in the Senate. Eisenhower left office with a 59 percent approval rating.

Reagan had two real plunges -- first during the 1982 recession, when he dropped to 40 percent in the Gallup Poll, and then just after the 1986 midterm elections, when the Iran-Contra scandal broke. Reagan's popularity dropped to 47 percent but then rebounded. In his last year in office, Reagan's approval rating started in the high 40s, rose through the 50s, and spiked up to 63 percent during his last full month in office.

Clinton took his big plunge in his first two years in office, dropping to 39 percent in August 1994. He had a 48 percent approval rating going into that year's disastrous midterm elections, when his party lost 52 House seats and eight Senate seats.

Although the Monica Lewinsky scandal hit during January 1998, Clinton's approval ratings were 58 and 60 percent in two Gallup Polls conducted as the story was breaking; his ratings remained in the 60s and even hit 70 percent during the impeachment process. Then, beginning in April 1999 and for the duration of his presidency, Clinton's approval ratings were in the mid-to-high 50s or even in the 60s. Controversies about pardons did not arise until Clinton was out the door.

Obviously, presidents can and do enjoy rebounds. What's unusual is for a president's approval rating to have dropped so low this early in a second term.

Bush's administration can keep pouring money and attention on the Gulf Coast, try as best it can to get oil prices down, and try to improve the situation in Iraq, but if the White House is going to achieve a rebound, it will be -- to use Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's phrase -- "a long, hard slog."

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