Analysis: Bush keeps trust base on Iraq

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst  |  Aug. 30, 2007 at 7:55 PM
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WASHINGTON, Aug. 30 (UPI) -- President Bush still enjoys far more credibility than the Democrat-controlled U.S. Congress over the war in Iraq, the latest UPI/Zogby poll has found.

The poll, which was conducted Aug. 17-20, found that twice as many Americans thought the current 110th Congress's performance on Iraq was worse than the three previous Republican controlled Congresses. In all, only 20.2 percent of those polled believed that the current Congress had been better than those of the previous Republican ones. Some 42.8 percent said it was worse.

These results appear to be a devastating repudiation of the political strategy followed by Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill. And at a time when President Bush's popularity and approval ratings remain very low, they will be received as validation by White House officials.

The poll, however, also found an extremely high number of people who could move either way on the issue. Some 35.4 percent of respondents said they thought the current Congress handled Iraq "about the same" as its predecessors.

This finding may also reflect the widespread realization -- and accommodation to the fact -- that the president is the commander in chief of the U.S. armed forces and that congresses historically have had very little impact on war-making policies except when things have been going exceptionally badly.

President Bush also scored well, though with a narrower favorable margin, on the issue of whether the public wanted him or the Congress to manage the war in Iraq. Some 47.2 percent of respondents favored the president for the role while 39.3 percent preferred the Congress and 13.6 percent were not sure.

This finding was far from clearly welcome news for the president as it reflected a high degree of uncertainty on the issue among voters. The president enjoyed overwhelmingly high numbers on such questions in the months after the March 2003 invasion of Iraq to topple its longtime dictator Saddam Hussein.

The poll also revealed a deeply divided American nation on the basic subject of whether the war in Iraq should still be fought or not. Some 30.2 percent still strongly supported the war with 12.4 percent saying they somewhat supported it. These figures gave Bush a combined support base of 42.6 percent.

The figures opposing the war were considerably higher, but it was the intensity of the opposition rather than the numbers of those opposed that will be disquieting to Republican Party political strategists.

Only 6.5 percent of respondents "somewhat" opposed the continuation of the war, but a whopping 50.0 percent "strongly" opposed it.

Some 50 percent in opposition is the strongest such figure in opposition to any war the United States has fought since the grimmest period of the Vietnam War. But it is the intense commitment of a full half of the electorate to oppose the war that is the more significant figure. It is much larger than the regular Democratic support base in almost every presidential election over the past 30 years.

Voters and respondents in polls who "somewhat" agree or disagree with major national policies are less likely to go to the voting booth to express their pleasure or displeasure at what is being done. But those who "strongly" agree or disagree will go to the voting booth in far larger numbers. And the balance between voters who "strongly" support the president on Iraq and those who are "strongly" critical of him is shifting very clearly against him.

When voters were asked whether they believed the allegations against Saddam made by the administration and its supporters before the outbreak of war, their replies were not overwhelming, but nevertheless conveyed a significant erosion of credibility in the president.

Before the start of the war, a clear majority of respondents polled, some 60.9 percent, said they strongly or somewhat believed that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. But that figure was down to 43.6 percent in the current poll.

Before the start of the war, 43.7 percent of respondents said they believed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaida and mastermind of the Sept.11, 2001, terror attacks, was working with Saddam. That figure was down somewhat to 37.7 percent today.

Considering the degree of hostile and critical coverage the Bush administration has endured on the issue, it is a tribute to its political skills that this figure remains as high as it is.

Some 49.5 percent of respondents to the current poll said that before the war began they did not believe Saddam was working with bin Laden. That figure had risen by a comparable measure to 57.7 percent today.

Although that 8 percent swing on the WMD and bin Laden questions is relatively small, it could still prove decisive if translated into votes in national presidential and congressional elections.

Overall, the figures recorded in the poll certainly documented a trend of eroding trust and belief in the president's policies on Iraq and justifications for them. But that erosion was not yet overwhelming. Nor has the president lost his core support base. The debate is not over yet.

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