Confronted with strong opposition to his Iraq policies, President Bush decides to interpret public opinion his own way. Actually, he says, people agree with him.
Democrats view the November elections that gave them control of Congress as a mandate to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq. They’re backed by evidence; election exit poll surveys by The Associated Press and television networks found 55 percent saying the U.S. should withdraw some or all of its troops from Iraq.
The president says Democrats have it all wrong: the public doesn’t want the troops pulled out ? they want to give the military more support in its mission.
“Last November, the American people said they were frustrated and wanted a change in our strategy in Iraq,” he said April 24, ahead of a veto showdown with congressional Democrats over their desire to legislation a troop withdrawal timeline. “I listened. Today, General David Petraeus is carrying out a strategy that is dramatically different from our previous course.”
Increasingly isolated on a war that is going badly, Bush has presented his alternative reality in other ways, too. He expresses understanding for the public’s dismay over the unrelenting sectarian violence and American losses that have passed 3,400, but then asserts that the public’s solution matches his.
“A lot of Americans want to know, you know, when?” he said at a Rose Garden news conference Thursday. “When are you going to win?”
Also in that session, Bush said: “I recognize there are a handful there, or some, who just say, `Get out, you know, it’s just not worth it. Let’s just leave.’ I strongly disagree with that attitude. Most Americans do as well.”
In fact, polls show Americans do not disagree, and that leaving ? not winning ? is their main goal.
In one released Friday by CBS and the New York Times, 63 percent supported a troop withdrawal timetable of sometime next year. Another earlier this month from USA Today and Gallup found 59 percent backing a withdrawal deadline that the U.S. should stick to no matter what’s happening in Iraq.
Bush aides say poll questions are asked so many ways, and often so imprecisely, that it is impossible to conclude that most Americans really want to get out. Failure, Bush says, is not what the public wants ? they just don’t fully understand that that is just what they will get if troops are pulled out before the Iraqi government is capable of keeping the country stable on its own.
Seeking to turn up the heat on this argument, Bush has relied lately on an al-Qaida mantra. Terrorists remain dangerous, and fighting them in Iraq is key to neutralizing the threat, he says. “It’s hard for some Americans to see that, I fully understand it,” Bush said. “I see it clearly.”
Independent pollster Andrew Kohut said of the White House view: “I don’t see what they’re talking about.”
“They want to know when American troops are going to leave,” Kohut, director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, said of the public. “They certainly want to win. But their hopes have been dashed.”
Kohut has found it notable that there’s such a consensus in poll findings.
“When the public hasn’t made up its mind or hasn’t thought about things, there’s a lot of variation in the polls,” he said. “But there’s a fair amount of agreement now.”
The president didn’t used to try to co-opt polling for his benefit. He just said he ignored it.
In Ohio in mid-April, for instance, Bush was asked how he feels about his often dismal showings. “Polls just go poof at times,” he replied.
It was the same the next day in Michigan. “If you make decisions based upon the latest opinion poll, you won’t be thinking long-term strategy on behalf of the American people,” the president said.
After weeks of negotiations between the White House and Capitol Hill’s majority Democrats, last week ended with things going Bush’s way. Congress passed and he signed a war spending bill that was stripped of any requirement that the war end.
Wayne Fields, an expert on presidential rhetoric at Washington University in St. Louis, said the president’s new language exploits the fact that there is no one alternative strategy for the public to coalesce around, which clearly spells out how to bring troops home. Bush can argue that people agree with him because no one can define the alternative, Fields said.
But, with the president’s job approval ratings so low and the public well aware of what it thinks about the war, Bush is taking a big gamble.
“This is a very tricky thing in our politics. We want to think that we want our leaders to stand up to public opinion. But we also like to think of ourselves as being in a democracy where we are listened to,” Fields said. “He risks either the notion of being thought out of touch … or to be thought simply duplicitous.”