by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- After being battered by seemingly relentless bad news since early April, President George W Bush has enjoyed two weeks of relatively good news but still finds himself struggling in the polls.
With slightly less than five months before the November elections, the latest nationwide poll, released Thursday by the 'Los Angeles Times', shows presumptive Democratic nominee Senator John Kerry leading Bush by a 51-44 percent margin in a two-man race, and by 48-42 percent if independent candidate Ralph Nader is included.
The nominations of both Kerry and Bush will not be officially announced until after party conventions this summer.
But the decisive electoral count -- that is, which candidates will take the electoral votes allocated to each state -- remains very close, amid indications that Bush is doing better in several "battleground" states than had been thought even one month ago.
According to the Times poll, and another carried out last week by Zogby International, Bush is currently leading by a large margin in Missouri, whose 11 electoral votes are considered critical to the chances of both candidates, while Ohio's 20 votes, which were in Kerry's column last month, are now leaning toward Bush, albeit by an extremely narrow margin.
Bush's approval ratings, which reached their nadir two weeks ago, have also begun to swing upwards, although, at between 46 percent and 51 percent in the most recent surveys, they are hovering well below the levels that incumbent presidents have historically needed for re-election. No modern president with less than 50 percent approval five months before election has been re-elected in the post-World War II era.
By most accounts, Bush will stand or fall by what happens in two broad areas, both of which are largely beyond his control -- Iraq and the economy, especially job creation.
On both fronts, he has received relatively good news over the past two weeks. The economy, which has clearly gained momentum since last summer, has produced nearly half a million new jobs in the last two months, according to government figures. If that trend continues through the summer, Bush has an "outside chance", as the 'Wall Street Journal' put it, of making back by election time the 2.2 million jobs that were lost during his first three years in office.
If the price of oil also continues to decline into the summer, many citizens who felt compelled to make more modest summer vacation plans due to last month's record gasoline prices, may now feel they can afford longer trips if the current downswing continues. They may then feel a lot better by September, when independent voters in particular begin to focus on the candidates.
Since the administration confirmed last month that it was headed in a more pragmatic direction in Iraq -- signalled by the disgrace of neo-conservative hero Ahmad Chalabi (head of the Iraqi National Council and a key player in Washington's plans for occupied Iraq until he was accused in May of passing U.S. intelligence to Iran); the selection of a new government headed by less polarizing figures, which is supposed to take the reins July 1; and Bush's willingness to compromise with key allies to get the latest United Nations resolution through the Security Council -- the news has also improved.
Last weekend's death of former President Ronald Reagan and the pomp and ceremony that followed also helped push continuing revelations about the prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq, touched off in late April, off the front pages and evening news casts this week, to the administration's great relief.
It also permitted Bush to wrap himself up as tightly as he could in the warm glow of the nostalgia evoked by Reagan's passing that flooded the mass media all week long.
Indeed, the Bush campaign's Internet website is currently dominated by photos of and references to Reagan, as well as U.S. flags -- a tactic that struck analyst Joshua Micah Marshall as both "crass and cynical" and "a tad desperate".
But the big question now is whether the good news can last long enough for Bush's approval rating to rise the five or 10 percentage points that he will need to beat back a Kerry challenge.
If the economy continues to strengthen and adds jobs at the same or a faster rate than it did last month, Bush could gain considerably, if only because Kerry, who has hit the jobs theme hard, is running 11 percentage points ahead of the president on the issue.
But even if the economy did erase the job deficit that has built up, Bush is still considered highly vulnerable on the issue as the first president since Herbert Hoover, who presided over the early years of the 1930s Depression, not to have added jobs during his tenure.
Moreover, Republican strategists are increasingly concerned that the Federal Reserve will decide to push up interest rates later this summer to prevent the economy from overheating. That would bring hiring to a screeching halt, as would a major new oil price hike, particularly one resulting from anticipated supply problems caused by an attack by the al-Qaeda terrorist group on Saudi Arabia's oil infrastructure or even growing civil conflict in Nigeria or Venezuela, other major oil producers.
Similarly, Bush has only limited control over the situation in Iraq that, while relatively calm since the selection of the new government and the tentative withdrawal of Moqtada Sadr's militia from Najaf, could blow up again at any time, according to analysts both inside and outside the administration.
The president's Iraq strategy appears to rest on a general pullback of U.S. forces to less visible and vulnerable bases, intensification in the training of local military and security forces, and strong support for the government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who, after all, has been a favorite of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) since 1992.
To the extent that Allawi feels obliged to rehabilitate members of the Ba'ath Party of former President Saddam Hussein, invite Sadr to join the government, tolerate private militias, and otherwise appease forces that Washington had previously vowed to "crush" or "kill", Bush will not stand in his way -- so long as he and U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte can provide at least the illusion of stability, if not progress, for the voters back home.
But, as Republican strategists themselves readily admit, that scenario is the best possible case and, given the unpleasant surprises of the past year in Iraq, is unlikely to come to pass. There is also the possibility of a new crisis overseas -- be it in Saudi Arabia, Iran or North Korea -- or even a new terrorist attack on U.S. soil that may confirm to many voters that Bush's leadership has not improved national security.
And the steady stream of leaks of memoranda by Bush appointees in the Justice Department, the Pentagon and even the White House concerning the prisoner abuse scandal may well reclaim the spotlight once Reagan is finally interred.
June 9, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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