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Man of the People

Last December, Secretary of State Colin Powell’s approval rating with the U.S. public stood at the stratospheric level of 65 percent, where it more or less remained through 2004. For most secretaries of state — indeed most politicians — a 65 percent approval rating is beyond their wildest dreams. Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, ...

Last December, Secretary of State Colin Powell’s approval rating with the U.S. public stood at the stratospheric level of 65 percent, where it more or less remained through 2004. For most secretaries of state — indeed most politicians — a 65 percent approval rating is beyond their wildest dreams. Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, the architect of the post-World War II Bretton Woods system, suffered from low approval ratings (30 percent in December 1950). Henry Kissinger’s approval rating hovered in the low-50s in the final months of his term as secretary in the Ford administration (52 percent in October 1976).

For Powell, 65 percent was a career low. Only one year before, during the apex of the war in Iraq in the spring and summer of 2003, Powell’s approval rating was at or above 75 percent, where it had more or less remained since he was sworn in as secretary in 2001. Powell’s consistently high approval rating — even as President George W. Bush’s popularity has waxed and waned with global events — is one of his enduring enigmas.

Political observers attribute Powell’s consistently high marks to several factors, the most obvious of which is ethnicity. He "offered a remarkable opportunity to bridge the gap between races in America," notes Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. Other secretaries of state, however, have transcended historical barriers and not always been so highly regarded. Madeleine Albright became the first female to serve as secretary of state in 1997. Yet her approval rating swung wildly — from 65 percent in April 1997 to 49 percent in February 1998 (during yet another standoff with Iraq) to 61 percent in April 1999. The bigger factor working in Powell’s favor may be his low profile in an administration of more outward, and more hawkish, cabinet members such as Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, particularly as the fighting in Iraq drones on. "It seems most Americans don’t blame [Powell] for Iraq," says Barbara Slavin, who covers the secretary for USA Today, "figuring that he did the best that he could to broaden international support for the war and he was bested by Cheney [and] Rumsfeld." Even Powell’s critics, says Colorado College political scientist David Hendrickson, "see him as a link to a pre-9/11 world in which allies and international institutions mattered."

The greatest test of Powell’s public image may come in retirement. Sabato offers a prediction: "I would bet that Powell is the only high appointee of [Bush’s] administration to retain his popularity in the years ahead. There’s a reckoning coming for most, if not all, of the others."  

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