When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on the morning of August 29, 2005, George W. Bush’s presidency was already in trouble. But images of a proud American city inundated under nine meters of water, as people screamed in vain for help from their rooftops, shocked the nation. Over 1,000 have died. The Bush administration’s excruciatingly slow and ineffective response was summed up with an iconic photo of the president flying over the wreckage of Air Force One, look helplessly out the window.
Soon after, Bush’s approval ratings fell below 40% for the first time – and they would never fully recover. For many Americans, Katrina was the last straw, even more so than the war in Iraq, definitive proof that hers was an incompetent and dishonest government. Majorities began to say in the polls that Bush could not be trusted in a crisis. Nothing would change their mind. Bush’s ratings continued to decline for the remainder of his presidency, to less than 25% when he stepped down in 2009.
Recent polls in Brazil raise the question of whether President Jair Bolsonaro has already crossed a similar Rubicon. The main culprit is not a hurricane, of course, but a virus – the one he called “a little flu” and minimized almost every step of the way. Now, Bolsonaro’s approval rating sagged in the 1920s in many polls, which also shows him losing the October 2022 elections by more than 20 points to his nemesis, former leftist president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Does Bolsonaro still have time to make his comeback? Or have most Brazilians basically made up their minds and decided to move on?
It looks like the latter to me. 59% of respondents last week’s Datafolha poll said they would not vote for Bolsonaro “under any circumstances”, a number that rose to 64% among women and 70% among young people. (Overall, only 38% said the same about Lula.) 63% like Bush say Bolsonaro is “incapable of running the country”, while the majority also describe him as dishonest (52%) and unprepared (62%). It is one thing for a president to lose popularity; it is another to lose respect. Once gone, he rarely returns.
No doctorate is needed to understand how we got here. Bolsonaro’s numbers have been eroding steadily since January, when an emergency social program was scaled back when the so-called Manaus variant brought the pandemic into its most brutal phase. COVID-19 has killed at least 590,000 Brazilians, the second global death toll behind the United States. On a per capita basis, Brazil is also one of the 10 most affected countries. Today, cases and deaths are finally declining, thanks to a delay but successful vaccination campaign. But by constantly questioning the effectiveness of vaccines and avoiding the jab itself, Bolsonaro accomplished the singular feat of receiving little or no political credit for the improvement.
What happens in the economy is also critical. If you look at the GDP numbers, Brazil appears to be a relative success story – shrinking less than any other major Latin American economy in 2020 (-4.1%) and rebounding well in 2021 (+ 5%). But these figures mask vast inequalities. With the virus preventing a return to normal and Bolsonaro’s constant disruption driving investment away, unemployment has stayed near record highs at 14%. The estimated number of Brazilians suffering from hunger has almost doubled since Bolsonaro’s election in 2018, to 19 million people. Meanwhile, inflation stands at 9%, the fourth highest rate in Latin America behind only Venezuela, Argentina and Haiti, with a devastating effect on real wages. Especially in poorer areas like the North East, all of this fueled nostalgia for the 2000s when Lula was president, a period marked by massive corruption scandals but also the growth of the middle class. Polls suggest millions of Brazilians seem to conclude: “We thought Lula was bad, but god damn it, Bolsonaro is worse. Bring back the bearded man.
Bolsonaro’s team believe they have at least one more ace in the hole – plan to increase the payout for the Bolsa Familia social protection program, perhaps up to 50%, from December. It might work; the generous aid package of 2020 clearly upped Bolsonaro’s odds. But that was before the tragic 2021 outbreak that saw hospitals and cemeteries overflow, a national trauma that no money may be able to completely erase. During this time, several economists have slashed their GDP forecast for 2022 to less than 1%, lowering hopes of a pre-election consumer boom. Everything about Bolsonaro’s behavior suggests that he feels insecure – from his constant questioning of the Brazilian electoral system to his (since retracted) vows to disobey Supreme Court rulings and his warnings that a split with the Constitution could be imminent. Bolsonaro recently says he only sees three possible outcomes for himself: “prison, death or victory”. He doesn’t act like he thinks the third option is the most likely.
The pandemic has created a tough environment for incumbents everywhere – as evidenced by recent election results in Argentina and Peru, two other countries in the tragic “top 10” per capita of COVID. It is often said that presidencies boil down to one thing. For each world leader in the early 2020s, they will be judged on how effectively they limited the damage from the worst pandemic in a century. In the past 18 months of denial, antagonism and inattention to the crisis, Bolsonaro appears to have convinced most Brazilians that he is simply unable to protect them, a view they seem unlikely to change. And this is where our two stories diverge: George W. Bush had his “Katrina moment” per year. after he was re-elected. Bolsonaro may have arrived a year ago, with profound consequences.
Key words: Brazilian elections, Jair Bolsonaro
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its editors.