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Between Iraq and a Hard Place

by Ruy Teixeira

The remarkably poor and ineffective response of the Bush administration to the Hurricane Katrina disaster, particularly the New Orleans flood, seems likely to make a bad political situation for Bush substantially worse.

Consider Charlie Cook’s summation of where Bush was at politically before the Katrina disaster:

From the beginning of Bush's first term through mid-June of this year, in only two out of 170 Gallup national surveys did his disapproval ratings reach 50 percent or higher. Since mid-June, eight out of 10 Gallup polls have put his disapproval rating above 50 percent. And virtually every major national poll shows his job-approval ratings this summer at their lowest level yet. News from Iraq has been worsening, and the war, along with rising gasoline prices, had driven Bush's approval ratings far below where those of every modern two-term president, save Richard Nixon, were at this point in their fifth year in office.

With violence in Iraq expected to only get worse in the period leading up to the October referendum on that country's new constitution, U.S. public opinion seems about ready to stampede away from Bush and the war......

One might add to this summation a few of the more gaudy data points from two recent polls that underscore Cook’s viewpoint.

1. In the latest CBS News poll, Bush’s overall approval rating is 41 percent, and his ratings on the economy and Iraq are 37 percent and 38 percent, respectively.

More than three-fifths (62 percent) of the public says higher prices for gasoline affect them personally “a lot” and 63 percent believe that the price of gas is something a president can do a lot about.

On Iraq, 61 percent say the war hasn’t been worth the costs, 55 percent want to decrease or remove all US troops and just 16 percent believe the Iraq was has decreased the threat of terrorism against the US. And, by about 2:1 (57-29), people say Bush makes things in Iraq sound better than they are, rather than providing an accurate picture.

2. In the latest Gallup poll, Bush receives the lowest approval ratings of his presidency for handling terrorism (53 percent), the economy (38 percent) and health care (32 percent) and ties his low on Iraq (40 percent).

On gas prices, his rating is a stunningly low 20 percent, with 76 percent disapproval. About 7 in 10 report suffering some financial hardship from rising gas prices and most expect gas prices to continue to rise in the coming year.

On Iraq, 53 percent now say sending troops to Iraq was a mistake, 53 percent want to withdraw some or all troops, 69 percent believe it’s unlikely that peace and internal security will be established within a year (56 percent don’t believe that’s even likely in “the long run”) and 82 percent believe US military casualties will continue at the current rate or higher for the next year.

Cook initially thought, given how dire Bush’s situation was becoming, that the Katrina disaster might actually help Bush in the short run by diverting attention away from these problems, particularly Iraq. But he’s changed his mind. As he puts it:

Natural disasters and other tragedies offer both opportunities and risks for our elected leaders. They offer the opportunity to demonstrate leadership, decisiveness, compassion and competence -- all during a period of maximum visibility. The risk is that if a leader fails to rise to the occasion, a national spotlight illuminates the failure for all to see -- and judge.

President Bush masterfully demonstrated leadership qualities after 9/11. (His reaction to last year's Florida hurricanes and his efforts to help their victims were also impressive.) Americans were not just satisfied with the response of their government to the tragedy of 9/11, they were proud of it. But this Wednesday, Thursday and even Friday, as I write, I doubt many Americans who have followed the government's response to Katrina are proud.

Exactly. Failing the test of leadership in real time and in plain view seems likely to only add to Bush’s troubles. Consider how the public has reacted so far to Bush’s handling of the situation–they started out slightly positive (54 percent approval in the last two days of the CBS News poll, August 30-31), but his rating declined to 46 percent in a September 2 Washington Post/ABC News poll and has now sunk to 38 percent, with 54-55 percent disapproval, in the September 4-5 tracking polls conducted by SurveyUSA.

And, of course, people are overwhelmingly convinced that the federal government should have been better prepared, done more to help, been better organized and so on.

As Harry Truman put it: “The buck stops here”. Bush may not personally subscribe to that view, but, in this case, I think the public’s going to insist.