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POLITICS-US: Has America Accepted George W. Bush?

NEW YORK, Jul 11 2001 (IPS) - When President George W. Bush visited New York City Tuesday to pay tribute to the late Roman Catholic Archbishop, John Cardinal O’Connor, the local response was summed up by protesters’ placards, which read, “Not MY President.”

A local radio station laughed off Bush’s visit, warning him to leave because “this is Clinton country.” Indeed, the Republican President almost seemed to take note, making sure that Democratic Senator and former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton accompanied him on the one-day visit.

The coverage of the Bush visit dripped with the sort of contempt reserved for visiting athletes of opposing sports teams. Respected columnist Pete Hamill wrote of Bush in the New York Daily News, “His face twitched, his mouth moved as if to say something that never emerged, his brain seemed to be saying, ‘Don’t sneer, don’t sneer’.”

Nor is this only a New York reaction, although 85 percent of the residents of New York City gave their votes to Bush’s Democratic challenger, former Vice President Al Gore, in last year’s elections. Recent polls – from CBS and the New York Times, but also from more Republican-friendly pollsters like John Zogby – show Bush’s popularity plummeting among the nation at large, with barely half of all respondents saying that the new president is doing a good job.

Significantly, a majority of respondents in the CBS-Times poll said they believed that Bush does not care about the issues that concern them the most. Nor did the US public think their president has a good grasp of foreign policy, normally a safe zone for presidents who have run into trouble domestically.

All presidents have brief honeymoons with the US public. President Bill Clinton, just half a year after he replaced Bush’s father at the helm of government, had been embarrassed by a standoff with Branch Davidian militants in Waco, Texas, and was running into trouble on his ultimately failed plans to revamp the health-care system.

But few presidents have faced as low poll numbers as the younger Bush has done this early, and – from the pundits to the comedians on late-night talk shows – he seems unable to counter the impression, evident during last year’s campaign, that he is a lightweight.

Some of the problem lies in the contentious nature of last year’s election, when Bush actually lost the popular vote to Gore by more than half a million votes cast but, thanks to a certified 537-vote margin of victory in the hotly disputed ballot in Florida, prevailed in the system of selecting electors to decide the presidency.

Many Americans, from legal scholars to those on the left, continue to dismiss the five-to-four decision in the Supreme Court that stopped the vote count in Florida, effectively handing victory to Bush – who, like the Supreme Court majority, is a Republican.

Others, including Hillary Clinton, have advocated scrapping the electoral college system as antiquated; indeed, the majority of Americans were puzzled at how the distribution of electoral votes favoured Bush even when he fell short by a significant margin in the popular vote. Bush thus earned the dubious distinction of being the first president since Benjamin Harrison was elected in 1888 to win the White House simply on the basis of electoral votes, while losing among voters overall.

So it’s easy enough to see why the president faces problems of credibility – particularly when combined with a stumbling speaking style and seeming lack of intellectual energy that prompted the left-leaning Nation magazine to refer to him as the “Presidunce.”

Yet Bush’s inability to win over the nay-sayers by earning respect at his job has seemed unusual in a country that warmed over time to Bill Clinton as a lovable rogue, and to Ronald Reagan as a grandfatherly figure – overlooking the harsh rhetoric and frequent betrayals those presidents took on at their jobs.

In part, his unpopularity simply reflects the weakness of his administration, where lobbyists prevail over good-government activists and over which companies like Halliburton (to which Vice President Dick Cheney belonged) and Alcoa (former corporate home of Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill) hold sway.

In addition, the joy the US public has had in poking fun at Bush – from his mangled syntax to his perpetual half-sneering, half-blank expression – reflects popular contempt at the sort of privileged underachiever that the president represents. From his mediocre academic record at Yale University to his ownership of the Texas Rangers baseball team, Bush has been described repeatedly as someone who rises to prominence on wealth and family connections, rather than the sort of can-do overachiever that Clinton and even Reagan typified.

As a result, it’s quite possible that, as the economy slides into a decline and the Democratic-majority Senate rebuffs his conservative policies, Bush is in for a long four years. In time, the cool reception he earned this week in New York might not seem so bad.

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