Iraq and the President

Dec 14, 2008 4:10pm

George W. Bush’s trip to Iraq is a visit to his personal political ground zero: Public disapproval of the war has been the prime agent in the president’s historic unpopularity.

Regardless of improved security there, a majority of Americans say the war in Iraq was not worth fighting, a view that’s held continuously for four years. Bush’s own ratings have moved in tandem; he hasn’t seen majority approval since January 2005, the longest such period since presidential approval polling began 70 years ago. (See chart.)

In last month’s election 63 percent of voters disapproved of the war, and three-quarters of them favored Barack Obama over John McCain for president. War disapproval was up from 56 percent in 2006, when the Democrats regained control of Congress, and from 45 percent in 2004, when, with a narrow majority still behind the war, Bush won re-election.

While the economy in the past year has surpassed Iraq as the country’s driving political force, the impact of the war on Bush’s presidency can hardly be overstated. Views of the war have been especially negative the past two years, with about six in 10 or more saying it wasn’t worth fighting. Bush’s disapproval rating in that same period has ranged from 62 percent to a high of 73 percent, the latter another record in presidential polls. (Bush's latest approval rating was 24 percent in an ABC/Post poll just before Election Day, 2 points from the record low set by Harry Truman in 1952.)

Negative ratings of the war have held even as views of gains in Iraq have improved. Belief the United States was making significant progress restoring civil order in Iraq advanced from 40 percent last April to 52 percent early this fall; nonetheless ratings of the war as “worth fighting” were unchanged. That’s because public views of the war are based not only on current conditions on the ground, but on the war’s long-term costs as compared with its perceived benefits.

In addition to its costs in lives, materiel and money, negative views of the war have been exacerbated by the disillusionment with the administration’s arguments justifying it. As many as 55 percent of Americans, in fall 2005, have said they believed the administration “intentionally misled” the public in making its case for war with Iraq.

Nor have U.S. efforts been popular in Iraq itself (as Sunday's shoe-throwing incident suggested). In a poll there by ABC News and media partners last February, while Iraqis reported improved security and economic conditions alike, they divided evenly on whether it was right or wrong for the United States to have invaded, 79 percent rated U.S. forces negatively and 73 percent opposed the presence of coalition forces in their country.

Here at home, as evidenced by the 2006 and 2008 elections alike, damage from the war extends beyond the president to his party. The Republican Party in 2003 finally achieved political parity, with as many Americans identifying themselves as Republicans as Democrats – an achievement more than two decades in the making. That was the same year the United States invaded Iraq; since then, as views of the war soured, Republican allegiance has declined and the Democrats have regained the upper hand, leading, ultimately, to their capture of the White House last month.

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