- The Washington Times - Monday, March 24, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

President Bush’s public approval remained largely unchanged over the past year, hovering around the low to mid 30s (it was at 32 percent in the latest Gallup poll). Ongoing public dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq helps keep these numbers down. Frustrated voters perceive only two bad options: precipitously withdrawing U.S. troops (an alternative with potentially disastrous regional and national security implications) or continuing to fight a war that many Americans now believe was the wrong decision in the first place.

A late-February Pew poll finds that indeed 54 percent believe the United States made the wrong decision in using force against Iraq. The same Pew poll, however, finds significant improvement in perceptions about the situation in Iraq over the past year. For example, the percentage of Americans saying the U.S. military effort is going “very or fairly well” has jumped 18 points since February 2007. Moreover, the percentage who believe we are “reducing civilian casualties” has increased 26 points; “making progress defeating insurgents” has jumped 19 points; and “preventing civil war” has risen 17 points in the past year. But perceived progress in Iraq has yet to move the president’s public support levels.

War in Iraq is not the only variable driving presidential approval. A weak economy, home price declines, mortgage/credit issues and surging energy costs are just a few of the factors that contribute to citizen anxiety and also push down presidential approval. Polarization further keeps the numbers low. A significant number of partisan Democrats will never say they support a Republican president. In fairness, the same is true when the partisan roles are reversed.

Determining how this tangle of political, economic and foreign-policy issues translates into presidential ratings is challenging. A recent poll released by The Tarrance Group explores these questions in an interesting way. Instead of focusing on overall presidential approval, it investigates attitudes about more recent White House actions and policy initiatives. It tells a very different story. Despite continuing low public approval numbers overall, citizens hold positive views toward White House policy initiatives and about the president personally.

For example, the survey asks likely voters about a host of domestic and foreign policy initiatives, such as: Mr. Bush working with Congress to produce a bipartisan economic stimulus package (64 percent approve); the White House launching a series of initiatives to help homeowners with rising adjustable rate mortgages (67 percent approve); and Mr. Bush’s efforts to reauthorize the Protect America Act, which allows intelligence officials to monitor foreign terrorist communications (70 percent approve). The survey also asked about Mr. Bush’s recent trip to the Middle East to jump-start a peace agreement (72 percent approve) and his plan for Africa aimed at fighting the spread of AIDS and malaria (76 percent approve). Compared to his job approval, the poll also finds a much higher percentage (56 percent) approve of the president personally.

Will improving attitudes toward Iraq, the popularity of the White House’s more recent initiatives and high admiration for the president’s personal qualities translate into a boost in overall approval during his last year in office? It’s hard to tell. But this survey demonstrates that digging below the traditional job approval measures reveals some positive views among voters about Mr. Bush.

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