San Diego Union Tribune

August 31, 2005

Progress in Iraq needed to sway public

By George E. Condon Jr.

WASHINGTON – President Bush's address in Coronado concluded a three-speech effort to swing public opinion on Iraq back in his favor. But, with an increasingly skeptical public voicing doubts about his war policies, he will need to do much more than a handful of speeches to convince Americans that the mounting casualties are not too high a price to pay to achieve his goals.

DON KOHLBAUER / Union-Tribune
President Bush spoke yesterday at North Island Naval Air Station in Coronado as part of a commemoration marking the end of World War II.

The speech at North Island Naval Air Station was in large part a well-delivered and well-earned tribute to an earlier generation of soldiers, sailors and Marines who fought their way across the Pacific and made possible the surrender of Japan, which was formalized 60 years ago this Friday, to end World War II.

Less effective was the attempt to link that war – viewed by most Americans as the last "good" war – with the murkier mission in Iraq.

Usually, politicians loathe the unfortunate timing of other news – in this case the horrific hurricane destruction in Louisiana and Mississippi – that overshadows such an address. But in this case, broader coverage of Bush's speech simply would have emphasized his inability to provide fresh answers to the questions more and more Americans are asking.

"The overwhelming impression you get from our surveys and others is that people feel like we're trapped in Iraq and they don't see a way out at this point," said Carroll Doherty, editor at the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. "And the president really isn't providing one, other than to say we'll leave when the job is done."

William Schneider, an expert on public opinion and the presidency at the American Enterprise Institute, said the president's three war speeches in nine days fell far short of what is needed to turn things around for him.

"He needs to talk much more realistically about what our goals are, and under what circumstances we will consider the job completed," Schneider said. "He's got to tell people there is an end to this, that we are not there forever. . . . Just give Americans some sense that there is an end game. That's what they want and he hasn't done that."

Jack Pitney, a former Republican strategist now teaching at Claremont McKenna College, said even after these three speeches Bush has not communicated a sense of his strategy and goals in Iraq.

"How do we win? How do we beat the insurgency?" Pitney said.

"I think he still has a lot of selling to do. Public opinion is not turning in his favor. The more the death toll increases, the greater are the demands for clear explanation of policy."

North Island was not the venue for any fuller explanation of policy. Instead, the event gave Bush a chance to bolster the morale of today's troops by linking them to the mission of their grandfathers in World War II.

"He compares this to World War II while his critics compare it to Vietnam. I'm not sure either one completely fits," Schneider said. "Every war is unique. The president is pushing this analogy to World War II, which I think is quite a stretch. After all, we defeated Japan. . . . There wasn't any insurgency during the occupation and the writing of a constitution."

The setting was reminiscent of what has become a moment of ridicule in the Bush presidency – his May 1, 2003, appearance on aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln off the coast of San Diego with a banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq. That is what critics are likely to recall. But yesterday's appearance probably served to shore up those still in Bush's corner.

"One thing he still has going for him is fairly solid support among Republicans," Doherty said. "These kinds of rally-around-the-flag speeches resonate among his base. But I doubt it will move too many war opponents to the other side."

John Mueller of Ohio State University, an expert on public opinion in wartime, said no speech can turn around public opinion on Iraq.

"I don't think rebuilding support is possible," Mueller said. "Mostly, the people who are disaffected are going to stay disaffected. Those who are not disaffected now, some will become so in the future. There is just eroding support for the war."

The problem for Bush is what Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of the University of Southern California calls a "dissonance" between his public pronouncements and the reality on the ground in Iraq.

"There is a disconnect between the president's argument that we are succeeding and the various setbacks that are occurring daily both in terms of American deaths and how long it is taking for the Iraqis to make any compromise on the constitution," Jeffe said.

"Opinion is being shaped by real events," Schneider added. "One is Americans being killed, another is what is clearly a stalled process. And a third is the continuing chaos and violence. . . . That changes more minds than anything the president said."

Polls show that the public does not back an immediate pullout of American troops, but, overwhelmingly, they do not believe that the president has a clear strategy for the war.

"He's really being hurt and hurt badly," said the Pew center's Doherty. "And the White House senses that. They know they need to get on the offense. But the thing they really need is signs of progress. That's what's going to change the numbers, not speeches."

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