Pundits are making a big deal about the President's 28% approval ratings. But what does it mean, really? In a historical framework, one is led to compare Bush with other Presidents. Maybe it's true that Bush is "the worst President" we ever had, but again it is necessary to ask just what that means. Apparently it does NOT mean he is powerless. Many fear he may yet do something monumentally stupid before he leaves office-say, launch an attack on Iran. Crazy or not, any President who could start a war in the waning months of his second term is anything but a lame duck.
Obviously, it is useful to understand the source of George Bush's extraordinary power even while we contemplate his low approval ratings. I would like to suggest that, at 28% approval, the President is actually doing extremely well politically inside what most Americans hope is just an artificial bubble (called Beltway Politics). Let me try to explain the source of Bush's power with a game-theoretical analogy. The lowest scoring game in NBA history was played in 1955, when Boston beat Milwaukee 62-57. The game was "terrible" but there was a winner and a loser just the same. Now let Bush be Boston, playing terribly, yet winning because the other team is playing worse. The analogy helps us understand that sometimes a historical comparison ("lower than Nixon") is just not relevant.
Consider the contemporary political landscape. America is founded on a system of checks and balances where power is shared among three branches of government: Executive, Legislative, Judicial. In theory, there is 100% of power available, and each Branch is given 33.33% of the power by the people and the Constitution. But of course the "game" tends to distribute the power asymmetrically. As one Branch gains extra power, the others must yield the same amount. Right now, it looks like the Executive has wrested much of the power from Congress and the Judiciary, which "we the people" observe with growing alarm. As consequence, the Executive, while doing almost everything wrong, has still managed to maintain a considerably HIGHER approval rating than the Legislative Branch. Compared to the level of public frustration at the Democratically-controlled Congress (18% approval rating)-not to mention the Justice Department's playing accomplice to the president's illegalities-George Bush's own 28% approval rating puts him in an excellent comparative position. He is winning while playing poorly, because everyone else is doing worse.But there's more. Thomas Jefferson wisely pointed out: "The only security is in a free press; the force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed." A free press protects our liberties by holding the three Branches accountable. It does this by speaking truth to power. What is needed most today is for the press to scream bloody murder about the so-called 'Unitary Executive' that is sucking the life out of our Republic. Instead, the corporate media has done just the opposite, cheerleading for George W. Bush's policies for the past eight years, delaying publication (or hiding) their investigations into Executive malfeasance, "presenting both sides" instead of damning the illegal invasion of Iraq, and even injecting Pentagon spokespersons disguised as "military analysts" into the nightly news, night after night for years and years. Not surprisingly, their collusion with the Executive has been so pervasive that, finally, the public has turned against the press, too. Horror of horrors, the mainstream media's political coverage has gotten low approval ratings lately. Lower than the President's, in fact. The result: George W. Bush appears to be winning the "game" with the press as well as Congress. A game that is being so poorly played and officiated that the majority (81%) think the country is on the wrong track.
Make no mistake. Even in sports, the fans have a voice. They badger rules committees demanding changes. They don't like slow ball. No more goal tending. They want fair referees. A 24-second clock. Six fouls and you're out. No popcorn without a butter option.
At this point the sports analogy starts to break down, as we shift our attention to what can be done to change the outcome of the game. The country's problems cannot be fixed by changing the rules, but by applying the rules we already have. We need to restore the balance of power in government, which, thanks to corruption and the corporate media, has allowed power to drain from the Legislative and Judicial branches and toward the Executive. At this point in our history, the voice of the people must be used, not to badger but to cajole. Here's what we can do. Plead with Congress and the Press. Let them know what you think. Sign those email petitions-I get at least six per week and I sign most of them. Takes about five minutes total. Write to your newspapers the old-fashioned way, and let them know what you think of their war coverage. Visit the blog sites of Washington and New York media stars, and tell them what for. Let Congressman John Conyers know that you approve of him using the power of inherent contempt to arrest Karl Rove for refusing to honor a congressional subpoena. Tell your congresspersons that you approve their refusing to grant amnesty to lawbreaking Telecom companies. Explain to Speaker Pelosi that she was wrong to take impeachment off the table, because it deepened the crisis of power in government. Remind her of how Cindy Sheehan and Michael Moore took a brave stand against the beltway insiders before most of the rest of the country realized what was happening. That's how they became "unpopular" at the time-but time has proven they were right, while the glib Thomas Friedmans were wrong, about virtually every detail of every issue of importance in George Bush's America.
There is still time for Congress and the Press to do what they are supposed to do--namely, to oppose George Bush's slow-ball juggernaut. When they do that, their approval ratings will quickly rise above President's, restoring the balance, and removing the President 's ability to drag the whole country down with him.