By MARSHA MERCER
Americans are notoriously fickle. Three separate times while he was president, George W. Bush’s approval rating plummeted to 25 percent. This, of course, was the same president whose approval rating soared to 90 percent after the 9/11 attacks.
As Bush’s helicopter lifted off the U.S. Capitol grounds for his return to Texas after Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration in January 2009, the jubilant crowd sang-sneered: “Nah, nah, nah, nah, hey, hey, goodbye!” At that point, only about one in three Americans approved of his performance as president.
Bush claims he never worries about polls or the judgment of history. When journalist Bob Woodward asked him in 2003 how history would judge the Iraq war, Bush declined to take the bait. “History. We don’t know. We’ll all be dead,” he said.
As they often do with polarizing politicians, people have mellowed toward Bush. Nearly half of adults now approve of the way he handled his job as president. While about three in four Democrats still disapprove, that’s down from the nine in 10 Democrats who disapproved in 2008 of the way he did his job.
Bush’s approval rating overall equals Obama’s, the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll reported Tuesday. Such are the power of silence and absence.
In our ego-driven world, the idea of someone stepping off the national stage more or less voluntarily has definite appeal. Even his critics admired the way Bush picked up his paint brushes and went about his new life in Dallas, refusing to be drawn into the political fray.
He didn’t respond when Barack Obama and other Democrats blamed him for the mess he left. He skipped the 2008 Republican National Convention to stay in Washington after Hurricane Gustav, showing he did learn something from the disastrously slow response to Katrina. He declined an invitation to join Obama at Ground Zero after Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011. Bush also stayed away from the Republican National Convention last year.
The 43rd president, in interviews surrounding the dedication Thursday of his presidential library, began to give his side of his eight White House years. For example, he vigorously defended the Medicare prescription drug benefit he expanded, despite Republican criticism that it was too big and costly.
“We were modernizing an antiquated system” already in place, he told the Dallas Morning News.
He regrets being unable to get an immigration bill through Congress, and he called for a “benevolent spirit” in the debate.
His brand of “compassionate conservatism” may yet get a second look from his party. After losing the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, the Republican National Committee finally conceded that the perception that the GOP doesn’t care hurts Republican candidates. Imagine that.
It’s worth remembering how Bush cast his compassionate conservatism. “Big government is not the answer. But the alternative to bureaucracy is not indifference,” he said in 2000. “We will give low-income Americans tax credits to buy the private health insurance they need and deserve,” he said.
Democrats typically denounced Bush’s compassion as phony, and conservatives saw his conservatism as squishy. Interestingly, tax credits are what the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare – will give low-income people in January to buy health insurance through exchanges.
House Republicans have voted repeatedly to repeal Obamacare. This week House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., tried a different approach. The felicitously titled “Helping Sick Americans Now Act” would redirect $300 million from the health law’s Prevention and Public Health Fund to a temporary health insurance fund for people with pre-existing medical conditions.
The idea was to show that while they hate Obamacare, Republicans do care about the sick. Not so fast.
Democrats opposed the measure for draining the public health fund, and the White House threatened a veto. But it was the ire of GOP conservatives that forced Cantor to pull the bill before a floor vote. Tea party Republicans and other conservatives refused to vote for anything short of repealing Obamacare.
Cantor says he isn’t giving up. Can he win the compassion argument among Republicans that Bush could not? Stay tuned.
© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.