Voters Like President, if Not Performance

Times Staff Writer

When President Bush described himself the other day as "a friendly guy," he made a point that many of his critics concede: They loathe his policies but like him personally.

Now that his job-approval ratings are hovering around the 50% mark, about the lowest of his presidency, Bush's affability has emerged as one of his more visible assets as he prepares to run for reelection.

Even though a growing number of Americans disapproves of his stewardship of the economy, as well as the Iraq war and its troubled aftermath, the president's personal popularity remains high in polls, a phenomenon Bush clearly is determined to exploit, given that voters generally prefer to like the person they send to the White House.

Elections may not be popularity contests. But as Al Gore learned in 2000 and Gray Davis discovered on Oct. 7, lacking a winning personality can cost you votes. While many White House aspirants have overcome that handicap -- Richard Nixon, for example -- it definitely helps to be liked.

"Likability is indeed a factor," said Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas historian and longtime Bush-watcher. "It is harder to vote against those we like." No one seems to appreciate the truism more than Bush; he displays that awareness day in and day out, including on his recent trip to Asia, where he bantered with leaders and the press.

Not surprisingly, the president works equally hard at cultivating the image of being a strong leader and of being someone who can be trusted to keep his word -- traits that, along with amiability, fall under the broader rubric of "personal image," analysts say.

"Being liked is not enough," said pollster Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. "More than being liked is a president's personal image."

When asked what most matters in a president, voters reliably list leadership, issues and character, according to Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia political analyst. "Likability is part of character," he said. "When voters genuinely like a president, they root for him and give him the benefit of the doubt on close calls."

Nothing is likely to affect Bush's reelection bid more than the state of the economy and the stability of Iraq a year from now. But in the meantime, other worrisome signs are gathering for the president and his strategists.

A September CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found that the percentage of people who say Bush possesses the personality and leadership qualities to be president had fallen to 59% -- a respectable number but down from a pre-Iraq war high of 79% in January. A poll this month by Fox News found a similar decline, with 57% rating Bush's leadership skills as "excellent/good," a drop from 64% in July.

And a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll in September found that the portion of Americans who were positive toward Bush had dropped to 52%, from 80% at the end of 2001. Still, the respondents said the qualities they most admired about Bush were his personality and leadership traits.

Bush's leadership image took a direct hit this month when Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chided him for not exercising sufficient control of his fractious foreign policy team, saying: "The president has to be president."

"Americans are not as enamored with Bush as they were when he first became president -- there is slippage on his leadership abilities," said Susan Pinkus, director of the Los Angeles Times Poll.

No wonder Bush tends to his public image so assiduously, rarely letting an opportunity pass to project a down-home manner.

Consider, for starters, how Bush has downplayed his privileged upbringing and Ivy League education -- and embraced the persona of a rough-hewn, back-slapping, nickname-conferring rancher who seems most at ease in his frayed blue jeans and cowboy boots, driving around his central Texas ranch in a pickup.

Still, much of Bush's affability comes across as genuine, whether he is hosting a poolside dinner for the White House press corps at his ranch or meeting with a world leader.

In Singapore last week, when Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong told Bush, "call me Chok," Bush replied: "Call me George." In Bali, during a news conference with Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, Bush playfully admonished a pushy American reporter: "Wait a minute. You're crowding out the host press. This is unbelievable. This is unilateralism at its worst" -- a self-deprecating reference to the widespread condemnation of his go-it-alone foreign policy.

In stump speeches around the country, Bush has developed a stand-up comic's sense of timing, displaying an ability to connect with crowds large and small -- some say every bit as ably as Bill Clinton did.

When in Florida, where Bush usually is accompanied by his younger brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, the president likes to quip that they both share the same political advisor -- their mother. He also likes to urge others to heed their own mothers' advice, as he does "most of the time."

Indeed, Barbara Bush is a regular foil in the president's speeches. When praising Dick Cheney as the best vice president in history, Bush never fails to add, with a pause and a smirk: "Mother may have a second opinion" -- a reference to his father's eight years as vice president.

Such presidential humor is downright tame compared with Bush's towel-snapping days as president of Delta Kappa Epsilon, known as Yale University's jock-and-party fraternity, or to his years as Texas governor.

One afternoon in 1999, as he emerged from the state Capitol, Bush spotted Democratic state Rep. Elliott Naishtat, who was showing some friends around the grounds. Bush sneaked up, put Naishtat in a headlock and then playfully tried to negotiate a fine point on welfare reform as stunned bystanders gaped.

In the White House, when a reporter inquired about Bush's plans for his wedding anniversary, the president responded with a suggestive wink and a sly grin as he exited the room.

"Even though his performance rating is slipping, people still think well of him personally. They say he's warm and friendly," Kohut said. "He still has a strong personal image."

Voters are less aware of Bush's impatience, testiness and the blunt, no-nonsense demeanor that many members of Congress have discovered lurks behind his jovial facade.

In a recent meeting with Republican lawmakers reluctant to back his request for $20 billion to rebuild Iraq, Bush snapped at Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine: "I'm not here to debate you." At the end of a session on Medicare reform with a bipartisan group of lawmakers, Bush approached Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), who had questioned the president's commitment to the issue, and told him brusquely: "Don't put words in my mouth." In his first meeting with Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, while still the president-elect, Bush admonished the soft-spoken South Dakotan: "Never lie to me." Daschle responded in kind.

Not even a year later, Bush hugged Daschle on the floor of the House of Representatives after delivering a post-Sept. 11 address to a joint session of Congress.

"One area in which George Bush is absolutely Clintonesque is in his capacity to build relationships, to work one-on-one with people, individually or in small groups," Daschle recalls in his upcoming memoirs.

Among the earliest recipients of the new president's charm offensive was Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), who along with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) worked closely with Bush to enact the No Child Left Behind Act, which instituted sweeping reforms in public education.

Bush dubbed the burly Northern Californian "Jorge Grande." In an interview, Miller praised Bush's easygoing demeanor: "It was easier to work with somebody who's pleasant -- even though the negotiations were very hard-nosed."

But Miller cited the president's subsequent refusal to fully fund the education reforms as proof that, amiable as Bush is, his policies are hostile to the welfare of average working Americans.

"He is essentially in a race between his personality ... and his policies," Miller said.

And that's a matter only voters can settle.

"In a race in which an incumbent seeks reelection, the performance record and the election-day state of the issues voters care most about -- the economy and Iraq at present -- are decisive to voters," Buchanan said.

"Despite high likability and leadership scores, neither Bush nor any other incumbent is likely to escape defeat if economic and foreign policy news is bad -- unless the voters' aversion to the opponent is stronger than their disapproval of incumbent performance," Buchanan said.

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