You don't think president Bush has had a rough ride over the last few weeks? Take a look at this new ABC/Washington Post news poll which has him losing a presidential match-up to John Kerry by a 52%-43% margin among registered voters.
Now, registered voters aren't 'likely voters', though figuring out who counts as a 'likely voter' is difficult so many months out from an election. But that still means that the president is getting knocked by almost ten points by an opponent who is, to most Americans, still largely an unknown quantity.
And the more ominous news comes down in the details. Put simply, a majority of Americans now believe that the president bamboozled them on Iraq. In the more temperate phrasing of the Post: "A majority of Americans believe President Bush either lied or deliberately exaggerated evidence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction in order to justify war." The precise numbers are 21% who say he lied and 31% who say he deliberately exaggerated.
Only 52% find the president "honest and trustworthy". And to borrow the title of the last book of the great J. Anthony Lukas, for Bush, that means big trouble.
Every president has characteristic strengths and weaknesses. For better or worse, by the end of his term of office, Bill Clinton's reputation as a truth-teller was in tatters. But that was never his strong suit with voters anyway. The measure of his enduring strength with voters is best guaged in a question pollsters usually frame as 'does candidate X care about/understand the problems that affect people like you.'
Clinton always did very well on that question. It's the politics of empathy -- a topic which, when it comes to Clinton, one could literally write a whole book.
People never warmed to President Bush as a literary critic or a raconteur. And he's usually done okay, but not great, on the 'care about/understand' question. His strong suit has always been honesty and trusthworthiness -- that and the closely related quality of 'leadership'. If he loses that, politically speaking, he's finished.
Ironically, the Post notes that President Bush's ratings on honest peaked at 71% in the summer of 2002. I say 'ironically' because the summer of 2002 was really not a high point for honesty or trustworthiness. But I guess that's what folks are starting to realize.