WASHINGTON — Taken as a snapshot, President Bush's latest poll numbers aren't all that bad. The American public still supports his decision to go to war in Iraq, as well as his ongoing efforts to stabilize the country. Bush's overall approval rating remains high, as does his job performance in the war on terrorism.
But in context, there are plenty of polling figures that could be, in essence, the canary in the coal mine - undermining not only his ability to fully fund Iraq reconstruction but also to go into next year's presidential election from a position of strength.
A Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll taken Sept. 2-8 showed a dip of 6 points in Bush's job approval rating over the previous month, from 58 percent to 52 percent. The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll found 6 in 10 Americans do not support Bush's request to Congress for $87 billion to fund US military and rebuilding efforts in Iraq for the next year.
Raghavan Mayur, head of the TIPP poll, says that typically other presidents who were in a similar boat 32 months after inauguration - with job approvals in the high 40s or low 50s - ultimately were reelected. "In this case, there's a difference ... in the sense that we got a postwar boost in April," says Mr. Mayur. "It took about four months to dissipate.... In the last month, the decline was somewhat steeper than the previous months."
Mayur sees three reasons for the decline: the loss of jobs in the US economy; continued attacks on US troops in Iraq; and the change in political climate as 10 Democratic presidential candidates question Bush's policies.
Opinion experts have taken particular note of the public's negative reaction to Bush's request for additional funding for Iraq. John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University, says he cannot recall a previous US war in which the public registered broad concern over the cost.
In Vietnam, "the antiwar people brought up the $26 billion a year cost over and over, but I don't think it really registered much," Professor Mueller says. "During World War II, people weren't running around saying, 'boy, this war is sure costing a lot.' "
Ultimately, Bush may well get his $87 billion to fund the Iraq operation, but he's still taking it on the chin from some congressional supporters of his policies. On Tuesday, Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, a Democrat who strongly favored the US invasion of Iraq, made headlines by calling on Bush to fire his defense leadership team, citing poor postwar planning. Congressman Murtha, a Vietnam veteran and respected voice on defense matters, supports approval of the $87 billion.
While rumors of coming resignations from top members of the Bush administration have been shot down, they reflect a growing unease in Washington about the long-term trajectory of events in Iraq. If deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein were to be captured or killed, or if weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, Bush would get a big boost. But the profound challenge of transforming Iraq into a functioning democracy would remain, and it's not clear that Bush has enough public goodwill in the US to stick it out.
"Being able to extract himself from Iraq in a reasonably orderly way would probably be good for Bush," says Mueller.
The question is, when can he do that? Modern history presents numerous examples of the US finding its patience wearing thin in seemingly unwinnable overseas operations - Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia - and eventually pulling out. A "nightmare scenario" for Bush, says Mueller, would be to pull out and watch Hussein return to power.
For Bush, the clear strategy is to hang tough and appear resolute. "The nature of this administration is to never admit to wrongdoing," says a senior Republican Senate aide.
That strategy includes not firing any of the top members of Bush's defense team, such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Such a move would be tantamount to an admission of mistakes, says the aide. Bush's memory of his father's failed reelection effort - which included backtracking on his "read my lips" promise of no new taxes - is "embedded in his consciousness," he says. "Once there's a reversal, events take a downward slide."
Analysts suggest that Bush's long stretch of popularity far outstripped the slim mandate he received after the contested 2000 election, which reflected a nation neatly split in half in its political views. Fourteen months before the next presidential election, Bush stands at a critical crossroads - boosted and shielded, to some degree, by his generally acclaimed performance after the 9/11 attacks, he now faces growing concerns over Iraq and where the US is heading.
"Right now, as things stand, he is in the unenviable position of being at the whim of external forces that could be beyond his control," independent pollster John Zogby told a Monitor breakfast Wednesday.