A week of escalating violence in Iraq, accompanied by growing numbers of U.S. casualties and gruesome images on television and in newspapers, threatens to erode public confidence in President Bush and redraw the political calculus of the impact of the war on terrorism in the presidential election.
Bush has put a consistently hopeful face on his Iraqi policy as he aims for the June 30 transfer of power back to the Iraqis. But that very optimism could turn into a political liability if the American people conclude that it does not square with their evaluation of events. Faced with a growing debate over his policies, Bush's credibility on terrorism, once the linchpin of his political strength, is under serious challenge.
"There's no doubt that the increasing casualties will affect public opinion adversely for a president who has drawn a much more optimistic scenario than the amount of casualties we're seeing today," said Larry Berman, a professor at the University of California at Davis and an author of books about presidential decision-making during Vietnam.
"There's a lot of reasons this is not Vietnam," he added. "There are so many inaccurate analogies being drawn, but the one that has the most resonance to contemporary events is the credibility gap between what a president says and what is happening."
Advisers to the president and administration allies said it was too soon to measure the political impact on Bush, but they were clearly nervous and expected erosion as a result of the events of the week. Meanwhile, a second Democratic senator in three days drew a parallel between Bush's Iraq policy and Vietnam.
The challenges to Bush's credibility come on multiple fronts. Assertions by former White House counterterrorism coordinator Richard A. Clarke that the administration did not take the threat of terrorism seriously before the Sept.11, 2001, attacks pose a direct challenge to the portrait White House officials have drawn of the president. Add to that images of a Marine carrying a body bag and the burned corpses of U.S contractors that have filled television screens in the past six days and the potential political peril for Bush becomes obvious.
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice will seek to rebut one such challenge when she testifies Thursday morning before the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks. Republicans privately said Wednesday that Bush must step forward to confront questions about his Iraq policy.
The president stayed out of sight at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., but events have played havoc with his schedule. Originally, Bush planned to remain out of view until he attends Easter services on Sunday, but aides acknowledged that was untenable at such a momentous time. Now they are planning an Easter Sunday speech at nearby Fort Hood, according to aides, and a possible appearance Friday.
Public support for going to war in Iraq remains strong, according to the only poll taken since four American civilian contractors were killed and their bodies desecrated in Fallujah last week, but more ominous for Bush were a sharp drop in support for the way he is handling Iraq and growing concern about whether the administration has a clear plan for a successful transition to Iraqi control and the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces.
The Pew Research Center survey showed that just 40 percent of Americans approve of Bush's handling of Iraq, down from 59 percent in January, when the capture of former President Saddam Hussein was still fresh. At the time of that capture in December, 44 percent said Bush had a clear plan for resolving the situation in Iraq; the latest poll found 32 percent agreed.
The most significant shift in attitudes occurred among political independents. In January, a solid majority approved of the way Bush was handling Iraq. Today, a solid majority disapproves, a shift that could mean political trouble if the president cannot reverse perceptions in the coming months.
John Mueller, a professor at Ohio State University and an authority on war and public opinion, said the uprising in Iraq is "potentially a debacle and a disaster" in terms of domestic support for the war. "We've heard about five times that we've turned the corner," he said. "We've continued to get this spin, which is fine if it's more or less true. Presidents frequently try to boost support for things by talking, but people don't necessarily buy it" without seeing improvements.
Bush campaign officials have challenged Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), the presumptive Democratic nominee, to explain what he would do differently, but even Republicans were looking Wednesday for Bush to take control of the situation to reassure the public -- not just that he is determined to suppress the resistance in Iraq -- but that there is a viable plan for transferring power in less than 90 days.
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