I hear from those on the right that President Bush is to be commended for ignoring the polls. Reagan was also famous for indicating that polls would not play a major role in his decision-making. This is supposed to represent courage and strong convictions.
I think this is wrong. Politics is always about building and maintaining consensus. The most important function of the presidency is not simply to exercise presidential power, but to use the "bully pulpit" to persuade the electorate of the wisdom of national policies. This is particularly true of those who are critics. It is of paramount importance that our leaders make the effort to bring along those who disagree, or when that fails, at least to make forceful arguments in support of national policies.
President Bush has failed at this. For whatever reason, he has not devoted sufficient attention to convincing the country that his policies are the right ones. His courage in ignoring the polls is the courage to do the "right thing" despite public rejection. This is certainly admirable, but policies without public support are soon doomed to failure.
"Finger in the wind" behavior is clearly cowardly, but it is not wise or good to ignore public opinion.
The difference is subtle. Polls should not be used in a craven attempt to determine what policies will get an officeholder re-elected. Polls can and should be used to guide leaders in choosing policies that have hope of public support. They are good modulators of a principled policy, but not a substitute for a principled direction.
Ultimately, it is the ideas that last. Great leaders push ideas and use their leadership positions to put them into practice and broaden their appeal. When the leaders are gone, the ideas live on.
President Bush may have made some difficult and courageous choices during his presidency, but his failure to effectively sell his policies will weigh heavily on his legacy.
"All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree." --James Madison