Political Pulse January 2007

The Confidence Gap

President Bush has not succeeded in changing people's minds about Iraq.
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"It is clear that we need to change our strategy in Iraq," President Bush said in his January 10 speech to the nation. But in announcing a "new way forward," did the president succeed in changing people's minds? Apparently not.

In December, Bush's job-approval rating was 36 percent in a CNN/Opinion Research poll. After his January 10 speech, it was 35 percent. No significant change. Before the speech, two-thirds of Americans opposed the war in Iraq. After it, two-thirds opposed the war. Before the speech, 27 percent of Americans thought a U.S. victory in Iraq was likely. After it, 27 percent thought a U.S. victory was likely.

It's as if nothing happened. Something did, of course. "I have committed more than 20,000 additional American troops to Iraq," Bush announced. And the public doesn't like it. By more than 2-to-1 (66 percent to 32 percent), Americans oppose sending additional U.S. troops to Iraq. In fact, half of the public strongly opposes the troop buildup.

"The president's plan moves the American commitment in Iraq in the wrong direction," Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois said in the Democratic Party's response to Bush's speech. Democratic voters are virtually united in their opposition: 88 percent oppose the troop buildup. And the president's base? Two-thirds of Republicans support Bush on Iraq, but we're now hearing more criticism from within his party.

Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., called Bush's troop buildup "the most dangerous foreign-policy blunder in this country since Vietnam." Hagel speaks for the 30 percent of Republican voters who oppose the president's plan.

Why did Bush fail to change many minds? First, most people's minds were already made up about Iraq. Second, the president's new strategy didn't sound all that new. And third, the success of Bush's strategy depends less on what Americans do than on what Iraqis do.

In his televised speech, Bush laid down benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet: It must take over security by November. It must pass legislation to share oil revenues. It must spend $10 billion on reconstruction, hold provincial elections, revise de-Baathification laws, and amend the country's constitution.

Americans have a great deal of confidence in the capabilities of the U.S. military. But they do not have much confidence in the capabilities of the Iraqi government, a government that couldn't even conduct a proper execution. In the CNN poll, 58 percent of Americans said they were "not very confident" or "not confident at all" about the Iraqi government. Americans are likely to be uncomfortable with the notion that our success depends on the Iraqi government's ability to achieve political reconciliation.

Congressional Democrats are proposing various measures aimed at stopping Bush from sending more troops to Iraq. Do Americans want their lawmakers to vote for a resolution "to express opposition to sending more troops to Iraq"? Yes, 62 percent do. What about a measure "to prevent the U.S. from sending more troops to Iraq"? Yes, 61 percent do.

Some Democrats want to go further. Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin said, "Now Congress must use its main power, the power of the purse, to put an end to our involvement in this disastrous war." Do Americans want their members of Congress to block spending for additional troops? Yes, 60 percent do. In fact, 54 percent say the government should not spend money to keep U.S. troops already in Iraq there, only to withdraw them.

Could it be that Bush's speech didn't have much effect because only 43 percent of Americans watched it? Even among those who did, only about one-quarter said it made them more likely to support the president's policies, another quarter said it made them less likely, and nearly half said the speech made no difference.

"No foreign policy can be sustained in America without the informed consent of the American people," Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, repeating for emphasis, "The informed consent."

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William Schneider is the Cable News Network's senior political analyst. He is also a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times, National Journal, and The Atlantic Monthly. His column appears every week in National Journal, a weekly magazine covering politics and government published in Washington, D.C.

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