Report card on the president

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs

24 April 2002 | George W. Bush received a mixed performance evaluation last week at an annual campus review of the president. For his handling of the Sept. 11 crisis, he got favorable marks, while in other areas the panel of political experts voiced concerns.

“His strength lies in having a straightforward, simplistic vision of what’s going on,” said Political Science Professor Jack Citrin. “And when that vision fits the times — when you have an enemy and the choices are clear-cut, like with Sept. 11 — this approach becomes much more effective.”

Citrin was joined on the panel by departmental colleagues Nelson Polsby and Terri Bimes, as well as San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders.

The discussion, hosted by the Institute of Governmental Studies and UC Berkeley Extension, touched on the legitimacy of Bush’s election, the Enron bankruptcy and the president’s soaring public approval ratings, among other topics.

“Bush has sustained his popularity because leading opinion has basically been supportive of his war policy,” said Bimes. “Even Al Gore, at a recent Democratic Party meeting, used constraint in his criticism of Bush — saying Republicans are using foreign policy as a cover for domestic goals, which is much different than saying the handling of Afghanistan or the Middle East is wrong.”

But Bimes, whose expertise includes the history of the American executive, predicts that Bush’s ratings will slip as the “elite consensus” begins to break down.

“Pat Robertson, a staunch conservative, has recently criticized Bush’s foreign policy,” she said. “This is an indication that he won’t be able to keep his public approval ratings at the same level.”

Another chink in Bush’s armor, said Saunders, is his tendency to maintain a tight inner circle of associates while excluding others.

This approach “creates an incredibly cohesive, focused team, free from backstabbing and leaks to the press,” she said. “On the other hand, being so insular takes a lot of energy and can create fallout. Look what happened with Jeffords (the Vermont senator who defected from the Republican Party last year).”

Most of the panelists agreed that the events of Sept. 11 transformed the public’s perception of Bush and have served to mask some of his shortcomings as a leader.

“He doesn’t explain or predict what he’s going to do very well,” said Polsby. “For example, during the campaign, he said he was a ‘uniter’ not fighter, but once in office, he ran a very hard-line, partisan program.”

Polsby also cited Bush’s pronouncement during the presidential debates that America would not be a nation-builder — while the administration is doing just that in Afghanistan. The president has also had to backtrack on earlier statements about the Middle East conflict, Polsby said.

This disconnect is “a very great weakness,” said Polsby, “but at the moment, everything is covered up by this rallying around the flag, so that the true dimensions of this presidency are not well understood.”


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