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."