The love him, hate him president
Americans adore Bush or loathe him — how we became a nation divided
By JOHN F. DICKERSON AND KAREN TUMULTY
There is an axiom in American politics that says whenever a sitting President is running for a second term, the election is more a referendum on him than a judgment on his opponent. President George W. Bush has taken this truism to a new level.
With just under a year to go before Nov. 2, 2004, Americans are already finding ways to show how passionately they feel about their President. In August, KB Toys rolled out its George W. Bush Elite Force Aviator doll, a 12-in. action figure in full naval flight gear. At $39.99, it has set the sales record for collectible action figures on KB's website.
There's also brisk traffic on the Web for donations in memory of Sally Baron, 71, of northern Wisconsin, and Gertrude M. Jones, 81, of Mandeville, La. Obituaries for both women contained requests that money be sent to any organization working for the removal of Bush from office. And in Jefferson County, Colo., West Jefferson Middle School teacher Martha Swisher sparked a furor by wearing a HE'S NOT MY PRESIDENT button on her coat during a sixth-grade field trip.
Republicans in Colorado's state legislature honored the family that lodged the complaint; the teacher now wears a lapel pin to class that features an American flag and a peace sign.
But there is little evidence of peace out there in an increasingly restive electorate. If Ronald Reagan was the Great Communicator, Bush is proving to be the Great Polarizer. Reagan and then Bill Clinton ushered in the modern age of the acrimoniously divided electorate, but George Bush has cleaved the nation into two tenaciously opposed camps even more than his predecessors.
He is the man about whom Americans feel little ambivalence. People tend to love him or hate him without any complicating shades of gray. Shout "George Bush" in a crowded theater, and people dive into two trenches. A new TIME/CNN poll shows that Americans are almost equally divided in their support for President Bush, with 47% suggesting that they are likely to vote for him and 48% saying they are not.
For Bush, some of the signals are ominous: the poll shows his job-approval rating stands at 52%, down from its peak of 89% in October 2001, and his disapproval has reached a new high for his presidency of 43%.
But those numbers do not reveal the intensity on both sides—the zeal of those who regard Bush as the very ideal of American presidential leadership and those who regard him as an embarrassing and dangerous usurper. Nor does it take full account of a more paradoxical group: those who like his personality but loathe his policies and want him out of the White House.
Fully 81% of Republicans say they like the job that Bush is doing; only 31% of Democrats do. "The President is a strong leader. He's very determined. He doesn't seem to be swayed too quickly by polls," says Jerome Kohel, 59, an accountant from Richland, Mich. But another fellow of the same age in that same crucial electoral state, car hauler Jim Carothers, fumes, "I think he's doing a horrible job. You'll never convince me [Bush] didn't know he was lying about the pretext for war."
Bush himself is like a one-man national Rorschach test for what kind of nation we want to be and what kind of President we want to have. In himself and in his policies, he has charted a course away from the Little America that many saw as the destiny of the U.S. in the 21st century.
Instead he has spoken loudly and carried a big stick, and expanded the role of America in the world without apology or much diplomacy. As President, he has moved away from the compromises of triangulation and coalition building to the politics of certainty. He may be wrong, he may be right, but he is never in doubt.
Republican and Democratic voters now disagree on nearly every important measure of Bush's presidency—on whether he has enhanced this country's stature in the world, whether he's been too partisan, whether he has a good grasp of the issues, whether he favors the rich, whether he has been too quick to inject his own moral and religious beliefs into politics.
Asked by TIME/CNN pollsters to describe Bush, Republicans over and over again used words like "decisive," "determined" and "strong." Democrats saw the same man in reverse image as "cocky," "arrogant" and "boneheaded." How we see George Bush tells us as much about how we see the world as about who he is.
The national coming together and one-size-fits-all patriotism that America saw in the months that followed 9/11 is now a distant memory. In many ways it has been Bush himself who shattered that comity. He came to Washington promising to unite and not divide, and he has made good on his pledge. Republicans are as united behind him as they have ever been, especially those on the religious right who were ignored in 1992 and are now being courted; Democrats are nearly as solid—and growing more so—in their disapproval.
There is probably no better evidence that the national argument over Bush is turning us into a nation of Toby Keiths and Dixie Chicks than the fact that both parties, after spending the last few election cycles chasing swing voters, have turned their attention, money and early energies for 2004 to their hard-core supporters.
For years pollsters said America was a 40-40-20 country—that is, 40% Republican, 40% Democrat and 20% independent. Now, they say, it's a 45-45-10 nation—with even fewer than that 10% truly up for grabs.
IT'S THE MAN, NOT THE POLICIES
George Bush is the son of a President who couldn't convince the country that he stood for anything. He succeeded a President whose survival depended on the public's capacity to divorce what it thought of his personal values from what it thought of his public ones. Bush has done the opposite of both. He has wrapped his presidency in who he is and what he believes.
So it's no surprise that the theme of Bush's first presidential ad of the campaign is essentially: I, George Bush, am the war against terrorism. "Some are now attacking the President for attacking the terrorists," the ad suggests darkly. After him, the deluge.
But for many, it's not so much Bush's policies or programs that make them adore or despise him, but the very way he carries himself—their sense of George Bush as a man. To some, the way that Bush walks and talks and smiles is the body language of courage and self-assurance, and of someone who shares their values. But to others, it is the swagger and smirk that signals the certainty of the stubbornly simpleminded.
"I like Bush's manner," says Kathie Tenner, a retired teacher in Des Moines, Iowa. "To me, he's very quiet and sincere, just kind of down home, not really trying to put on a lot of airs." "He comes across as an idiot," says Chicago attorney Sue Zalewski. "I know that, technically, he's not an idiot. But the way he says things can really use some work. He can be so uncouth."
Christian theology says to hate the sin but love the sinner. The secular version of that is how some voters regard George Bush: they like the man but loathe his policies. Nearly two-thirds of the public, including 42% of Democrats, consider him the compassionate man he claims to be. But that's not the point to those who say they want him out of the White House.
"I'd feel great about having a few drinks with him," says Gary Render, who clearly does not mind that the President would be drinking nonalcoholic beer. "I think he'd be a fun guy to hang out with," adds Render, 34, a medical representative in Chicago who has voted for both Democrats and Republicans. "But I think he's a walking time bomb in terms of his politics, his direction, his attitude, his approach to foreign policy, domestic policy."
THE POLITICS OF CERTAINTY
The President claims not to follow the polls or even read the newspapers. On issues from tax cuts to Iraq, he refuses to flinch when the numbers and sometimes the facts are against him. When he changes course—creating a Department of Homeland Security after he dismissed the idea or speeding up his timetable for giving Iraq its sovereignty—he is loath to concede there has been any correction at all.
And if he cannot be wrong, it follows that those who disagree with him cannot be right. For him, governing is a zero-sum game because it's not about compromise, it's about truth. "In an age of relativism—to my glee, but to others, it's jarring—he talks about enemies and good guys and bad guys. He paints stark visions of the choices he faces," says Christian activist Gary Bauer, who ran against Bush for the 2000 Republican nomination.
Last week, as tens of thousands gathered in London streets to protest his visit there, Bush once again framed the Iraq war as a test of our deepest beliefs. Whitehall Palace was surrounded by concrete and a wall of neon-coated police as Bush declared to an invited audience, "The evil is in plain sight. The danger only increases with denial. Great responsibilities fall once again to the great democracies. We will face these threats with open eyes, and we will defeat them."
Yes, Bush's malaprops and mangled syntax have given the late-night comedians as much material as Bill Clinton's sex life once did. But what's most revealing—and what drives people into one corner or the other—is the words he doesn't stumble over. Dead or alive. Bring 'em on.
And then there's the phrase that comes up so often in his public pronouncements, the one that some hear as a measure of confidence and others as one of smug disdain: "I expect." He expects the Congress to act, he expects the U.N. to show some backbone, he expects Arab nations to be his partners in making peace in the Middle East.
In scary and uncertain times, this kind of forcefulness is what some people want more than anything else. In Hialeah, Fla., a largely Hispanic city next to Miami, teacher Rose Ramirez, 57, declares, "It's about time we have a President that has the balls to do the right thing. People forget about 9/11." Bush's supporters increasingly worry about what they see happening in Iraq, but they stand behind him because he himself has not wavered.
It's as though they support his certitude more than his policies, his self-assurance more than his programs. "I like that he's decisive, and I think that he has the country's best interests at heart," said one respondent to the TIME/CNN poll. "I may not agree with what he chooses to do; it's kind of like having a boss who has the best interests of the company in mind, but won't give you a raise."
Others feel just as strongly that this complex, global, interconnected era should make the country especially suspicious of anyone who believes he has a monopoly on the truth. In Chicago, Jay Schwartz plastered on his minivan a bumper sticker declaring the President a "Punk Ass Chump," and has ordered a second batch of 5,000 to give away at his vintage-clothing and memorabilia shop three blocks from Wrigley Field.
The first was scooped up in a month. "I'm so frustrated at what he's done to our country and to the world, and I think the stickers just summarize it so well," Schwartz says. "It's a very gut-level response to feeling totally disenfranchised and upset with Bush, his Administration and his cocksure attitude."
IT'S THE POLICIES, NOT THE MAN
Bush's approach to leadership has invited Americans to take sides. That's because he has resolutely swung for the fences in both domestic and foreign policy. Despite coming into office with nothing like a mandate, he has governed as if he has one. As a result, Americans are divided over every big item on his ambitious agenda. Just as the country can't bring the war in Iraq to a tidy conclusion, it can't declare a truce over the fact that Bush took us there.
For those who support him, the policy of pre-emptive engagement is the ultimate sign of his visionary grasp of what is needed to fight and win the war on terror. "Something had to be done," says Kathie Tenner's husband Bruce, who sounds a lot like Bush when he argues, "Over the long haul, if we can establish democracy in one nation over there, it's going to spread." Edward Wiederstein, a farmer in Audubon, Iowa, goes so far as to suggest that Bush's critics are "promoting the enemy, as far as I'm concerned. The more rhetoric they've stepped up, the more the attacks against our people over there have stepped up."
For the increasing numbers who have doubts about the original mission to Iraq—only 55% approved of it in the TIME/CNN poll, down from 65% at the time of the invasion—Bush's policy was driven by everything from a thirst for oil to a crusading interventionist zeal. And the postwar problems bother them even more: the inability to find weapons of mass destruction, the shifting rationales for the conflict, the continuing bloodshed.
All are causing doubts not only about the Administration's credibility but also about its competence. "I don't like the fact that Bush totally failed to finish the job in Afghanistan," says Bonnie Simrell of Westcliffe, Colo. "I believe he withheld resources from that operation because he knew he wanted to march into Iraq. I didn't believe any of the arguments he made about going into Iraq. It was extreme folly. Now I feel helpless and hopeless."
At home, Bush was able to build a bi-partisan coalition for his first tax cut, but his push for more breaks and the reappearance of record deficits have reignited fiscal debates that had quieted during the fat years of budget surpluses. As the economy appears to be recovering, Bush's supporters credit his aggressive tax-cutting agenda and have called for more of the same.
Opponents say Bush has starved vital programs and left no money to reform health care or entitlements. "He came to office preaching the virtues of having a balanced budget and running [a professional government]," says Mike Lowry, 21, of Bettendorf, Iowa. "He's blown the balanced budget. His tax cuts were irresponsible and created a deficit that while his generation won't have to pay off, mine will."
In smaller ways, the Bush Administration is hardening opinions on both sides. Efforts to streamline regulations for business on everything from air-quality controls to workplace safety have won Bush the deep praise of small businesses and large corporations alike. For others, those steps are evidence that Bush is the obliging servant of corporate America, and all the regulatory changes that make little public noise are signs of a thorough and hidden campaign to roll back consumer and worker protections.
HOW WE GOT SO DIVIDED
The origins of this passionate national divide began to take shape long before Bush set foot in the Oval Office. It was partly produced by the political system itself. For instance, both parties have carved congressional districts that have solid majorities of Republicans or Democrats, which means fewer lawmakers have to compromise to keep folks happy at the coffee shop back home.
Special-interest money supports only the most righteous candidates, overpowering the old party structure in which being a purist on issues like gun control or fiscal spending mattered less than putting a D or an R after your name in the Congressional Directory.
And with the proliferation of media, Americans don't even have to listen anymore to anyone who doesn't agree with them. There's talk radio and cable and Truebeliever.com to reinforce and inflame their views rather than challenge them. At the bookstore, Ann Coulter and Al Franken square off on the best-seller table (see story). The hordes of media shouters both mirror the electorate and harden their outlook. Moderation may be sensible and practical, but it's not entertaining, and it doesn't sell books.
Bush stepped into America's raging culture wars as the most openly religious President in modern times. He has given voice to a constituency of Evangelicals and fundamentalists that was moving out of politics, convinced that it could not accommodate people of faith either in office or in action.
Bringing them back has been a near obsession for his political guru Karl Rove, who has told audiences that Republicans must find the 4 million who failed to show up at the polls in 2000. Bush has denied funding to organizations overseas that promote abortion, has signed the partial-birth-abortion ban and opposes gay marriage, but more fundamentally, he has overcome the skepticism of Evangelicals by being a witness to their common faith.
Asked during an early Republican debate in Iowa to name the "philosopher-thinker" he most identified with, Bush replied, "Christ, because he changed my heart." In office, he often talks about the power of prayer and calls freedom a "gift from the Almighty."
He appointed Attorney General John Ashcroft (who has proudly said that in America "we have no king but Jesus") and surrounded himself with a more quietly devout circle that includes the likes of Condoleezza Rice and Karen Hughes. "What is most important," says a Christian activist, "is that he is one of us."
But for those who don't share his religiosity—or those who do, but think it has no place in government—this quality has hardened their views of him. A 53% majority of voters either strongly or somewhat agree that Bush has been too quick to interject his own moral and religious beliefs into politics. "There are so many people who are tired of the arrogance of George Bush," says Susan Post, the owner of a feminist bookstore near the Texas state capitol in Austin. "They are tired of someone who believes he is leading via a higher power, that he has all the answers and that he is right."
CLEAVING THE CAPITAL
Whereas Bush prided himself on building bipartisan coalitions in Texas, he has done little to stop G.O.P. congressional leaders in Washington from all but shutting out Democrats from the negotiating process—depriving them of any say, or credit, for such crucial legislation as a Medicare prescription-drug benefit and an energy-policy overhaul. At one point, House Ways and Means Committee chairman Bill Thomas had his Democratic colleagues forcibly removed from a library by the police after they walked out of a hearing.
In the Senate, Republicans and Democrats engaged in a 40-hour display of petulance over the confirming of federal judges. Early efforts at bipartisanship have disintegrated as Democrats charge that Bush's promises fall short of what Republicans on the Hill ultimately deliver. Though Bush promised $15 billion in AIDS funding over five years, the first year's funding did not meet expectations.
On education, his signature bipartisan accomplishment, Congress has not come up with the money that education experts say it will take to truly leave no child behind. Democratic Congressman George Miller and Senator Ted Kennedy, both of whom had done business with Bush and became symbols of Bush's early willingness to reach across party lines, are now bitter opponents of the White House.
A worsening deficit and a soft economy forced Ronald Reagan to reverse some of his tax cuts in the early 1980s. But confronted by the same setbacks on his watch, Bush pushed through two more. Faced with opposition and criticism, Bush just raises the ante. His $87 billion Iraq-Afghanistan package brought a gulp from even his staunchest supporters on Capitol Hill.
And when polls showed Americans were increasingly disturbed about some of the provisions in the Patriot Act, which they viewed as a dangerous subversion of civil liberties, he sent John Ashcroft on the road to defend it and push for expanding it.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR 2004
Karl Rove carries in his briefcase a laminated card to help remind him of the central dynamic of the 2004 election. It shows five neat bar graphs for each presidential election since 1988 and last year's midterm election. Republicans are in red, Democrats are in blue, and between them a shrinking wedge of green shows the independent voter, a segment that has diminished with each contest.
The re-election campaign is in a higher gear than you might think a year before voters go to the polls. The Bush campaign is on track to raise $200 million, which, perhaps more than anything else, is a testament to the devotion of his supporters. And at Bush's suburban Virginia campaign headquarters, manager Ken Mehlman has taken to asking staff members who knock off early, "Does Howard Dean's staff go home at 6?"
The new wisdom about this election is that the side that wins will be the one that does a better job of ginning up its base. And while more voters are calling themselves independent, they are voting like partisans. In 2000 and 2002—the election that put Bush in the White House and the one that tested what voters think of his presidency—ticket splitting reached its lowest level in 30 years, according to a study by David Kimball of the University of Missouri at St. Louis.
Some suggest this will only get more pronounced. Laura Stoker, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, says that as more young voters who grew up during the culture wars that raged from the '60s through the '80s start going to the polls, they will be even more strongly polarized than their parents.
Against this landscape, both sides are focusing on their core supporters. Republicans are signing up those who share their values but haven't registered, in particular chasing young, mobile Evangelicals with a message aimed straight at their hearts. "It's the heavy, heavy red-meat stuff," says a top Republican activist. On the Democratic side, Dean's rise to the top of the heap is not so much the raising up of an obscure ex-Governor from a tiny state as it is evidence that a candidate can ride the tidal wave of Democratic indignation.
The Democratic base still burns with resentment at what they saw as Bush's theft of the 2000 election. With his barely concealed anger and his transparent disdain for Bush, Dean is, in fact, the Hate Him candidate, the one Democrat who has been able to channel the rancor many hard-core Democrats feel toward the President.
Republicans have no better asset with their base than Bush himself, and in gubernatorial elections in Kentucky and Mississippi three weeks ago, they gave their strategy a test drive. Bush swooped into both states the weekend before the election, and after he spoke, 2,500 volunteers were loaded on buses, given cold water and sandwiches and sent to precincts to knock on doors.
Armed with pdas that had been fed over the course of the campaign with precise information about the interests of those on the other side of the doors, the volunteers came prepared with individualized talking points. In some Republican counties, turnout was up more than 200% over the last election. In mobilizing the Republican base, Bush is the party's principal and all-purpose weapon.
Democrats are determined not to be outhustled at an organizing game they mastered through their traditional mobilization of labor unions. On the same day that Republicans were rolling to victory in the South, Democratic Mayor John Street was overwhelmingly re-elected in Philadelphia, in part because of the 86,000 new registrations that Democrats say they gathered in the city's African-American and Latino neighborhoods.
"The Republicans are not really expanding their base; they're turning out their base," says Democratic organizer Steve Rosenthal, whose new group, Partnership for America's Families, helped run the voter-registration operation and has other pilot projects under way in Cleveland, Ohio, and St. Louis, Mo. "The base on the Democratic side is much more expandable than the base on the Republican side."
For Democrats, Bush is also their not-so-secret strategy for mobilizing the faithful. Among them, it helped—not hurt—that Street was under investigation by Bush's Justice Department. "We did the registration; the FBI and the Justice Department took care of the turnout," Rosenthal jokes. Thanks to Bush, he adds, "the liberal side is as organized as it's ever been at this stage of the game. Bush is Bill Clinton to us."
Loathing of Bush has also brought new players into big-time politics—among them, billionaire financier George Soros. In interviews, the immigrant who grew up under Nazi and Soviet rule in Hungary has gone so far as to compare Bush's us-or-them attitude to what he saw around him as a child.
Soros has pledged $15.5 million to one of Rosenthal's groups and others working to oust the President, and he has made it clear he plans to give even more. When the Washington Post asked Soros a few weeks ago whether he would spend everything he has to get Bush out of the White House, he replied, "If someone guaranteed it."
For all the get-out-the-base drives on both sides, Republicans and Democrats alike are keenly aware that they cannot ignore Rove's lean green line, no matter how small the number of truly independent voters. In a race as close as the one in 2000, where five states were decided by less than 1% of the vote, even tiny numbers of swing voters can be an electoral tipping point. Both sides hope that if they can expand their own ranks, they will build a cushion against the shifting and unpredictable allegiances of that small handful of late deciders.
But characteristically, Rove and his untimid President want to play for all the marbles. They have increased Republican Party registrations, especially in the South and key battleground states, and boast of "hiving off" chunks of Democrats into their camp. What Rove is looking for is something Bush did not get in the last election: a mandate.
They are already laying plans for the ambitious things they want to do in a second term—Social Security overhaul, tax reform, Medicare restructuring and even more tax cuts.
DIVIDE AND CONQUER
You can argue whether Bush is a product of a divisive time in which he happens to be President or whether he's the instigator of it—whether he is the cause or the effect, the prime mover or the principal bystander. It's an old debate: Does history make the man or does the man make history?
The answer, as the wise philosopher always says, is, of course, both. Bush is the latest in a line of polarizing Presidents as well as the President who through his personality and policies has cleaved a land of already divided loyalties. But it is clear that in his quest for a second term, Bush is seeking to be the beneficiary of an America separated into two opposing camps.
By default or design, the Democrats are mirroring this tactic. It's an ancient strategy: divide and conquer. How voters react will help determine whether those Elite Force Aviator dolls will still be selling at Christmas 2004 or languishing on eBay.
—With reporting by Pat Dawson/Billings, Jeanne DeQuine/Miami, Mitch Frank/New York, Noah Isackson/Chicago, Betsy Rubiner/Des Moines, Joseph R. Szczesny/Detroit and Sonja Steptoe/Los Angeles
Copyright © 2003 Time Inc.