WASHINGTON – President Bush's critics are playing political hardball this election season, attacking him with a vitriol that some observers say is over the top. But others say the venom is a staple of presidential politics.
"Are they harsh? Absolutely. Are they harsher than other presidents, not just in modern times, but historically? No. It's an American tradition to beat up on our presidents," said Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics (search).
Presidents have consistently faced severe criticism, Sabato said, citing the abuse suffered by Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon and even Thomas Jefferson. He called media-darling John F. Kennedy the one exception.
"I can't think of another [White House] occupant who wasn’t beaten to a pulp on a regular basis," Sabato said.
But political expert Michael Barone (search) has written about what he sees as increased harshness directed toward the current commander in chief.
"I think the degree of feeling is unusually high," he said.
However, Barone agreed that the treatment Bush is receiving is not new in history. He compared it to the anger that some directed at Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
And none of the experts forget the beating Bill Clinton was regularly getting in the press toward the end of his presidency.
"I don't think the criticism [of Bush] has been that big compared to previous terms when you had an impeachment taking place. It's hard to argue that President Bush is getting harsher criticism," said James B. Lemert, professor of journalism at the University of Oregon (search). "I would be a little surprised if there had been an escalation of the rhetoric this century, including the 20th."
Polls show America deeply divided on Bush. In an Oct. 28-29 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, 44 percent of respondents said they would vote for Bush, while 38 percent said they would vote for the unnamed Democratic candidate. Other polls show public opinion on Bush even more closely divided.
An L.A. Times poll found that Bush's personal approval is much higher than that of his policies, with 68 percent of adults polled saying that they like him as a person and 26 percent saying they do not. The same poll found 46 percent like most of his policies, but 48 percent don't.
By comparison, the personal versus policy ratings for Clinton were reversed by the end of his second term. A September 2000 L.A. Times poll found that 58 percent of respondents approved of his policies compared to 41 percent who disapproved, but only 32 percent said they liked him personally against 67 percent who said they did not.
The public "really liked [Clinton] up until the scandal and then they realized that he was a sleazebag. Clinton was extremely popular personally, much more so than his policies, up until the Monica Lewinsky scandal," Sabato said.
Perhaps as a result of the personal bashing their leader took while president, the Democratic hopefuls seeking to follow in Clinton's footsteps are taking particular zeal in their attacks on Bush's policies.
Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., called Bush a "miserable failure." Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., said Bush is treating Iraq like "a toy he has won." Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., calls for "regime change" in the United States.
But critics don't limit their comments about Bush to political discourse. Some describe their feelings in the most visceral of terms.
In a recent New Republic cover story titled "The Case for Bush Hatred," Jonathan Chait writes that he "hates" Bush for his policies and his personality.
He hates the way he walks "shoulders flexed, elbows splayed out from the sides" and his "blustery self-assurance masked by a pseudo-populist twang," the article says.
Sabato said Bush's re-election team doesn't need to worry about the personal attacks on the president as long as he continues to have policy successes.
"They're not voting on personality. Presidential elections are about big things. They're not about somebody's smile and they're not about whether somebody likes somebody. They're about whether the individual has produced for them and their families," he said.
Barone added that voters will look at the president's position on the war, the economy and other significant issues, and not at whether they regard him as confident or cocky.
"I think it's going to be more whether or not people are with him or against him on major policies," he said.