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Is the Public’s Mood on Automatic Pilot Until the Fall?

Itís the end of February, still more than eight months before Novemberís midterm elections. Thatís an eternity in politics, and itís one reason why Republicans remain optimistic that they can turn public opinion more in their favor than it is now.

But on issue after issue, public opinion seems to have solidified against President Bush, and there is shrinking reason to believe that Bushís standing will improve before November.

That means GOP prospects for holding the House and avoiding an electoral bath depend almost entirely on localizing elections. Given the publicís unambiguous dissatisfaction with the president, Congress and the direction of the country, that, too, seems increasingly unlikely.

Just when you think Bush has an opportunity to turn things around, another issue surfaces to pose a problem for the White House and the GOP. If Vice President Cheney isnít shooting somebody, a foreign corporation based in the Middle East is taking over management of the nationís port facilities.

Of course, neither of these events are all that newsworthy: The Cheney incident was a media process story and the port facilities issue is less a story about U.S. security or the war against terrorism and more of a drummed-up controversy created by politicians to score political points and, in turn, mined by cable news networks to draw viewers. But both caught the mediaís attention and put the White House on the defensive.

Polling tells a sad story for the GOP. Bushís job rating is in the low 40s, and the public is equally unhappy about the presidentís handling of Iraq, health care, immigration, taxes, the federal budget deficit and the economy ó even though the U.S. economy is in relatively good shape.

Even Bushís handling of the terrorism issue has plunged, despite the fact that we havenít seen a development so dramatic that it would automatically cause his credibility on the issue to tank.

People arenít making significant distinctions between Bushís performance on various issues, which makes it more difficult for the White House to change public attitudes on any single measure of Bushís job performance.

Americans, or at least many Americans, now assume the worst about the president. They interpret events through the lens of pessimism. Good news, such as the state of the economy, is not appreciated, and bad news is not merely bad, itís catastrophic.

So, for Bush, this public mood is disastrous since it means that Americans are not in any mood to receive good news or re-evaluate their hardening assumptions about the current administration or the GOP.

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