President reaps a year-end rebound

Hussein's capture aids public support for strong global role.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It's been a good December for President Bush, politically speaking.

As he heads into a year in which he'll campaign for reelection, the economy appears to be improving. The capture of Saddam Hussein has made many view the occupation of Iraq more positively. Money is flowing into his reelection accounts like water down the Potomac. Democrats seem more divided than they were only weeks ago.

One big caveat: It's early. Months from now, pundits might look back and say Bush peaked too soon, like a baseball team that collapsed after leading its division in May. The new orange terrorism alert has introduced an element of unease into the US holiday season. Another Al Qaeda attack could rewrite the nation's politics.

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But for now, things are looking up. To steal a phrase from his father, Bush the son seems to have "Big Mo."

"He's got a bit of a comfort zone at the moment," says Allan Lichtman, a political scientist at American University.

Generally speaking, the president's poll numbers have yet to approach the high levels they reached early in the year, following the conclusion of major combat operations in Iraq. A steady drip of bad news about job losses and continued US casualties caused a slow decline in most measures of Bush's job-approval rating throughout the late summer and fall.

But with the onset of winter, good news has reduced that trend. Many polls in recent weeks have shown jumps in Bush's numbers. A Washington Post/ABC poll released Monday put the president's overall job-approval rating at 59 percent, the highest it has been since August. A Gallup survey released December 18 pegged Bush's approval rating at 63 percent, representing a jump of seven points in only a few weeks. "President George W. Bush's job-approval rating has increased significantly, as has his electoral strength against Democratic candidates," concludes a Gallup analysis.

Growing optimism about the economy is a major driver of the rising numbers. The upward march of the stock market and GDP numbers has been a tonic for the administration, despite the continuing dreariness of job- creation numbers.

A new Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll puts an index of Bush's overall presidential leadership at 54.1, a slight increase from November. But the poll's economic-optimism index hit 58.8 - a jump of 5.2 percent in four weeks.

The single event that has most helped the President's recent political fortunes, however, has been the capture of Saddam Hussein. In a stroke, pictures of the bedraggled former Lion of the Tigris may have changed the context and meaning of the Iraq story for a significant number of Americans.

A Gallup survey taken shortly after Mr. Hussein was hauled out of his hole found 65 percent of respondents approving of how the US has handled the situation in Iraq since major fighting was declared over. In the first few days of December, when continued US casualties and the strength of insurgents was the major news from Iraq, approval was significantly lower - only 46 percent, according to Gallup.

The new Monitor/TIPP poll finds 69 percent of respondents saying that US actions in Iraq are now making the world a safer place, up from 51 percent who said so in November.

Street interviews in Boston turn up similar sentiments. The detention of Hussein will "help us down the road, because it's brought everything to a head," says Cathy Thompson of Medfield, Mass.

But the political glow derived from such a single dramatic event could turn out to be ephemeral. Hussein's capture may change everything in Iraq, and it may not: Insurgent attacks continue, and the steady drain on US forces may once again become the most prevalent Iraq news.

Furthermore, Hussein's capture may have raised expectations among Americans for the return of troops and the lessening of US involvement. A significant number of American voters are deeply opposed to the war and unlikely to be convinced of its benefits. If the planned transition to Iraqi rule does not proceed as scheduled, it is entirely possible that Iraq will become a polarizing, hot-button political issue in the fall.

"The whole war against Iraq has nothing to do with more security," says Lynn Davidson, a Brown University sociologist shopping this week in a Boston mall.

Recent history suggests that it takes significant bad news for a war to become a political problem for an incumbent chief executive, says Allan Lichtman of American University.

Even with Vietnam, it took a few years for the war to drag down Lyndon Johnson's approval ratings in polls. And in that case, it wasn't just Vietnam that changed public opinion; it was the overall chaos of the times, the sense that the very social fabric of the nation was unraveling.

But both Vietnam and, perhaps, Korea, eventually became large enough issues that they supplanted the economy as the voters' preeminent concerns.

"That's the history of these things," says Lichtman. "When they go sour, they become big, big problems."

Noel Paul contributed to this report.

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