In his April 17 column, Newsday columnist James P. Pinkerton asked: "If [President] Bush is falling apart so dramatically that he is in danger of simply vanishing, how come he's hanging in there in the polls?" Pinkerton noted that "Bush's average approval rating" in April 2007 is 34.6 percent and was 35.6 percent in April 2006. He then added: "Neither number is impressive, but what's clear is that Bush is hanging in there, approval-wise." But in characterizing Bush as "hanging in there," Pinkerton -- exhibiting a tendency on the part of many in the media, repeatedly documented by Media Matters for America, of presenting Bush's low poll numbers in as positive a light as possible -- ignored Bush's polling status relative to that of other recent presidents.
Further, Pinkerton claimed that Bush's approval ratings look better when viewed relative to "the Democrats who now control Congress." Pinkerton wrote: "The president doesn't look so good. But if the Congress doesn't look so good either -- then the president isn't in such bad shape." However, the two Democratic leaders he cited in the column -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (CA) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (NV) -- both have significantly higher approval ratings than Bush.
From Pinkerton's April 17 Newsday column:
The pundits seem to agree: George W. Bush is toast, kaput. So how come the president's holding steady, even rising, in the polls? And what does that mean for 2008?
So here's a question: If Bush is falling apart so dramatically that he is in danger of simply vanishing, how come he's hanging in there in the polls?
But don't take my word for it. According to pollingreport.com, a nonpartisan compendium of polls, Bush's average approval rating for April 2007 is 34.6. And what was his approval exactly a year ago, for all of April 2006? It was 35.6. Neither number is impressive, but what's clear is that Bush is hanging in there, approval-wise -- no "epic collapse."
Pinkerton acknowledged that Bush's average approval ratings have declined by a point in the last year, while taking the position that the drop is insignificant -- an indication that Bush is "hanging in there, approval-wise." But he offered no evidence to support his claim in the first paragraph that Bush is "even rising in the polls." Nonetheless, Pinkerton's column appeared in Newsday under the headline "Dems boost Bush's sagging approval ratings." The column was also published in the San Francisco Chronicle and headlined "Democrats lift Bush's approval ratings."
Moreover, absent from Pinkerton's column was any discussion of Bush's approval ratings in a historical context. On April 17, Gallup News Service released its most recent quarterly average approval rating for Bush: 35 percent between January 20 and April 19. Gallup further noted:
George W. Bush's presidency reaches a milestone of sorts on Thursday as he completes his 25th quarter in office. But his 25th quarter is not one on which he will look back fondly, given that he averaged only a 35% job approval rating, the lowest quarterly average of his presidency to date. His previous low was the 36% he averaged in the quarter spanning April-July 2006.
Gallup has computed quarterly averages for 246 presidential quarters since 1945. Bush's most recent quarter ranks near the bottom, placing 228 out of 246, putting it in the 7th percentile.
Only four other presidents besides Bush have served 25 quarters or more since Gallup began tracking approval ratings in 1945. Not surprisingly, Bush's 25th quarter average does not compare favorably to the other presidents' at the similar points in their presidencies.
Similarly, an April 8 USA Today article noted:
Since the advent of modern polling, only two presidents have suffered longer strings of such low ratings. One was Harry Truman, whose popularity sank during the final 26 months of his tenure as the Korean War stalemated. The other was Richard Nixon during the 13 months leading up to his resignation amid the Watergate scandal.
Pinkerton went on to argue that the reason Bush is purportedly "hanging in there" is because "he is being compared and contrasted" to the Democratic-led Congress, who he claimed "doesn't look so good either":
So what gives? The answer would seem to be that Bush is not being evaluated in isolation: Instead, in the public mind, he is being compared and contrasted to the rest of Washington, D.C. - specifically, the Democrats who now control Congress.
One might ask: Has House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) acquitted herself well in her nearly four months in office? Democratic partisans will, of course, loyally defend her recent trip to Damascus, Syria, but Republican partisans, demoralized for so long, now have a tempting Democratic target.
Meanwhile, Americans in the middle, influenced by centrist voices such as The Washington Post's editorial page, probably think there's something a little inappropriate in Pelosi's crowding onto the foreign-policy turf of the executive branch.
And how about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who has worked so hard to impose a timetable on American involvement in Iraq?
Reid wanted to use congressional budget authority to oppose Bush's war plans, but instead he has gotten himself crosswise with the Pentagon service chiefs, all four of whom joined on April 9 to write a "16-star" letter to Congress, warning, "Further delay in congressional approval of money to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan . . . will have a profoundly negative impact on current combat operations."
In wartime politics, it's risky to go against the wisdom of the warriors. And yet, that's exactly what the Democrats are doing. That is, many Americans who oppose the Iraq war are nonetheless inclined to see something squirrelly about congressional attempts to "micromanage" the fighting.
So here's the bottom line: In politics, popularity is relative. The parties are judged not by themselves, but in relation to each other. The president doesn't look so good. But if the Congress doesn't look so good either - then the president isn't in such bad shape.
In fact, recent polling shows that significantly more Americans approve of the performance of Reid and Pelosi than that of Bush. Indeed, an April 12-15 Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 46 percent of respondents approved of Reid's job performance, 53 percent approved of Pelosi's job performance, and more generally, 54 percent approved of "the way the Democrats in Congress are doing their job." The same poll found that 35 percent approved of Bush's performance.
Media Matters has repeatedly noted a tendency in the media to tout a purported silver lining to Bush's low polling or to ignore bad polling numbers. For example:
- In an April 10 Washington Post article, staff writer Chris Cillizza wrote that an "interesting" aspect of a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll of likely Republican presidential primary voters in South Carolina was "the sky-high approval ratings registered by President Bush:" 70 percent. But recent nationwide polling of self-identified Republicans regarding Bush's job performance had yielded similar results, a significant decline in support for Bush among Republicans since his 2004 re-election.
- In a November 11, 2006, Newsweek online article, a caption to a picture accompanying the article compared Pelosi's favorability ratings with Bush's approval ratings, to suggest that the two were similarly unpopular. The caption asked, "Can They Work Together?" and noted that "Pelosi has 34 percent approval [favorability] ratings, slightly better than Bush's 31 percent [approval]." But the article left out the fact that, according to the then-most recent Newsweek poll, Bush's job disapproval ratings were more than three times Pelosi's "unfavorable" ratings.
- On September 19, 2006, USA Today/Gallup released a poll that found 44 percent of respondents said they approve of the way Bush "is handling his job as president"; the results represented a 5-percentage-point increase in Bush's approval rating from the previous USA Today/Gallup poll. Throughout that day, many television news outlets -- such as CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and NBC -- touted the poll as a success for Bush, describing Bush's "bounce" in the poll as "good news," asserting that his rating is "the highest it's been in a year," claiming the poll is "bolstering GOP spirits and rattling Democrats" while illustrating that Bush is "gaining in popularity" with the American public, and stating that the poll demonstrates how Bush "has rebounded." But four days before the release of the USA Today/Gallup poll, all four news organizations completely ignored a Pew Research Center poll showing Bush's approval rating at 37 percent, unchanged from Pew's previous poll and the lowest of all polls conducted within the previous month.
- In August 2006, NBC's Today and The New York Times reported the assertion, made by numerous Republican officials, that the arrests in the United Kingdom of several suspected terrorists reportedly on the verge of executing an attack on U.S.-bound international flights would play to the Republicans' advantage in the midterm elections because the issue of terrorism is a weakness for Democrats. But missing entirely from their reports was any reference to polling that showed an erasure in the advantage Bush and congressional Republicans once held on the issue.
- During the "All-Star Panel" segment on the July 4, 2006, edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, Washington Post staff writer Jeffrey Birnbaum baselessly asserted: "I don't think there's any question ... but if you compare Americans' view of the war in Iraq and the war against terrorism this Fourth of July compared to last Fourth of July, the president and his policies are in a much better position." Contemporaneous polling did not support Birnbaum's assertion.