- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 18, 2007

President Bush’s speech last week on the war in Iraq has opened a new chapter in the national dialogue about the conduct and future of this conflict — a debate an increasing number of Americans say is the most important issue for the White House and Congress to address. And while the importance of this issue for most citizens has ranked high for some time, voter demands that policy-makers address this issue have significantly intensified in the past few months.

This “surge” in the number of voters saying they want Iraq to top the White House/legislative agenda particularly intensified in the month leading up to the November elections and has since continued to climb. Recent public polling suggests Americans not only want Iraq to continue taking center stage in terms of the attention of Washington policy-makers, but that the issue has almost completely eclipsed other priorities citizens want addressed. And while this heightened focus by Congress on the war meets voter demands, it is also taking the focus off House Democrats’ 100-hour agenda, which was supposed to highlight separate pieces of legislation each day on issues such as minimum wage, student loans, energy, the September 11 commission and prescription drugs. As The Washington Post wrote last week, because of the heightened debate about the war “those much-touted bills are not likely to lead the news, and the Democratic leaders have been forced to change their tactics.”

As the first chart demonstrates, the number of people suggesting Iraq should be a top priority for the president and Congress has been growing among both Republicans and Democrats over the past year; in fact the percentage of Americans ranking Iraq as the top priority for lawmakers and the White House doubled in less than a year.

And while the number of Americans who want the president and Congress to address the issue has ballooned in the last year, what is even more striking is the gap between those who rank Iraq as the top concern compared to other issues. While 72 percent think the Iraq war should be the top priority, the economy ranks a far distant second, nearly 60 points behind, at 16 percent. The only other issues even reaching double digits are health care (12 percent) and immigration (10 percent).

These data do not suggest which option Americans want policy-makers in Washington to pursue, but they imply an escalating demand for some kind of action. Embedded in these numbers are some who want an immediate pullout of troops, some who strongly support sending more and others somewhere in between. The findings reveal a growing concern and urgency many feel about the situation in Iraq and that most Americans want “something” done by Congress and the president — even if they don’t agree on what that course of action should be.

One conclusion is clear, however. Washington will heed the wishes of voters and focus on the war in Iraq for the foreseeable future. And the intense scrutiny on this issue has already forced the Democrats in Congress to change tactics, because — consistent with citizens’ wishes — the war and the debate about its future course is crowding out attention to other matters.

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