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Examining the decline of support for President Bush

Gary Caruso | Friday, March 24, 2006

This week marked the third anniversary of the Iraqi invasion and conjured the obvious question, “How is it going?” President George W. Bush claims that great progress is not reported by American reporters, thus Iraq is not as bad as the average American may believe. Yet in the same breath, he concludes that American soldiers will remain in Iraq beyond his term ending in Jan., 2009. But with the British drawing down their troop level to 17 percent of their total, the new question is, “Are the British and Americans in the same war?”

The Iraqi quality of life belies the president’s contention. Today, fewer families have electricity in Iraq than before the invasion. Less oil is produced than three years ago. Fewer have running water or sewage treatment. In fact, earlier this week ABC News aired a spontaneous poll of Iraqi police standing at roll call. Asked for a show of hands of those who believe that they are worse off now than under Saddam’s rule, nearly two-thirds raised their hands for the camera in a less than resounding hearts and minds moment from the local front-line defenders of Iraqi democracy.

A president generally loses support when the public perceives distrust, deceit, disgust, disappointment or disgrace. The president surely becomes paralyzed if the public assigns him one of the dreaded five “D” grades. With Iraq and domestic spying, Bush has firmly planted his feet in the quicksand of distrust and disappointment.

Bush’s popularity peaked after the 9/11 attacks at 90 percent approval. Patriotic Democrats like this writer set aside political affiliation to make an American statement and support our commander-in-chief. Even French newspapers caught world sentiment when headlines read, “We are all Americans.”

Bush’s handling of Iraq steadily declined to 72 percent at the start of the invasion to 59 percent when he declared “mission accomplished” on the aircraft carrier. He slipped to 42 percent approval after disgusting revelations of American soldiers’ treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. He further suffered declines last month to 39 percent and now at only 31 percent approval.

Bush disappointed many by squandering that moment of world unity after 9/11 through miscalculations and strong-headed denials. Americans began to distrust Bush when he attempted to appear steady and strong while never adjusting for changing conditions. Only now Bush hints that some changes are needed. What he views as weakness and called “flip-flopping” in his last campaign now rhetorically prohibits him from making lifesaving adjustments.

Even Ronald Reagan, after cutting taxes, supported eleven “revenue enhancements” (tax increases) to help control budget deficits by portraying them as adjustments. Bush would do well to use the Reagan model.

Foremost, Bush should recognize that the National Guard and reservists are not suitable for long-term combat. On Wednesday, 24-year-old Sergeant Michael Smith, the tenth soldier at Abu Ghraib to be convicted for dereliction of duty and maltreating prisoners, testified that, “Soldiers are not supposed to be soft and cuddly.” While the court found that he conspired with another dog handler in a contest to make detainees soil themselves, the details of degradation is not the point of the Abu Ghraib failure.

The virtue of the United States is that it is the beacon of freedom and shining envy of democracy. It must always exemplify those values. When the president objects to Senator John McCain’s anti-torture language against the CIA, the president loses credibility. When part-time soldiers are forced to serve in a permanent war zone – beyond 2009 according to Bush – the quality of our mission suffers.

The Notre Dame ROTC community, of which I was a member, must take note of the graduate who cannot leave the Army reserve despite completing his eight-year commitment. Even with no “stop loss” order in effect, the Army will not release him. It seems that the unwritten rule is that unless reservists tour Iraq, they are not released despite serving a full commitment.

Early this year, the Notre Dame graduate filed suit against the Army. In what appears to be retaliation, the Army reassigned him to Iraq in April. He now has filed for an injunction. Enforcement of the unwritten tour requirement may keep boots on the ground for now, but it fosters feelings of deceit and distrust which are eroding the president’s military support.

Long ago, Democrats and most Independents abandoned this president. Bush only has himself to blame for the Republicans who are currently drifting away. As a rule, if at least 80 percent of Republicans support Bush, his overall approval breaks 40 percent or higher. While history kindly treated Harry Truman after he left office, few compare Bush to Truman. Ironically, they look at the last president to find himself in such turmoil and who left his war for his successor to remedy – fellow Texan Lyndon Johnson.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, is a political strategist who served as a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.