On June 7, Eric Alterman wrote this on his Altercation blog:
This just in: The new ABC News/Washington Post poll, here, shows 52 percent of Americans disapprove of the job President Bush is doing overall, reports ABC News' Polling director Gary Langer -- the most in more than 75 ABC/Post polls since his presidency began. His approval rating is 48 percent... George W. Bush's approval rating is now a full twenty points lower than Bill Clinton's was on the day he was impeached. Dear media, that means you gotta stop referring to him as a "popular president," and no less important, stop treating him like one. If you want to be wimps about everything, fine, just don’t blame it on his 'popularity.' Blame it on yourselves.
So, out of curiousity about whether the press still buys into the myth that Bush is popular, I searched on Nexis for the phrase "popular president" that Alterman put in quotes. And, amazingly enough, a search of the major newspapers and news transcripts categories showed that no reporters or pundits have used it to refer to Bush since his inauguration -- except for the frequently idiotic Chris Matthews, host of "Hardball". Here's the first example:
Matthews (4/11/05): "Let me ask you about this thing, about George Bush, George W. Bush. He's been an amazingly popular president, much more popular than either of the guys who ran against him, obviously."
According to Matthews, Bush was "much more popular" than Al Gore and John Kerry, yet Bush lost the popular vote to Gore and defeated Kerry by the narrowest margin of any president who's been re-elected since Woodrow Wilson. And according to Gallup, Bush's approval rating at the time of Matthews' comments was an utterly mediocre 50 percent.
Matthews repeated the claim a month later, with somewhat more restrained language ("pretty popular" versus "amazingly popular"):
Matthews (5/11/05): "[W]e have a pretty popular president. I looked at the polls the other day. The president bounced up there again about 50 percent. People oftentimes like him more than some of his program ideas, even with the war. Does he have a successor?"
Still, it stretches credulity to call 50 percent (the correct number at the time according to Gallup) "pretty popular."
Just for the sake of comparison, here's Matthews on the "Today" show on 9/14/98 referring to Bill Clinton as no longer popular at a time when the Gallup poll showed Clinton's approval rating at 63 percent:
You know what would be great for our system, if the president would come on television and say, you know what, I'm firing my lawyers, they've been charging me $ 400 an hour to lie to you. I'm going to tell you everything that happened, live with it. I think you're still going to like me. If he had done that in January, he'd be still popular today. If he does it today, really does it, doesn't play the game, the good cop/bad cop where he tells sort of an apology while his bad--bad guys are out there lying again I think the country would say, you know what, Bill, we liked you the first day we met you, we still like you.
Now, obviously people were mad at Clinton personally at the time due to the Lewinsky affair, and that anger wasn't fully reflected in his approval ratings. But it's pretty obvious that Matthews' standards for presidential popularity are a little different this time around.