How 'pushback' plays for Bush on Iraq

Administration vows 'no retreat' this week, as casualty count raises concern.

If every week in the presidency has a theme, this could be called "pushback week."

First, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice gave speeches urging patience on Iraq. Then President Bush drove the message home on Tuesday with a speech to veterans at the American Legion convention. He didn't answer all the critiques - such as complaints that he needs to send more troops and commit more funds to reconstruction - but offered instead a broad-brush pep talk vowing "no retreat."

Democrats, and some Republicans, have become increasingly vocal in criticizing the Iraq venture, as polls begin to show growing concerns about long-term US involvement in Iraq. In addition, Bush faced an uncomfortable symbolic milestone early this week: US military deaths in Iraq since the end of major combat surpassed those before Bush's May 1 declaration.

For the short term, Bush appears to be holding his own. The same opinion polls that show potential long-term public concerns on Iraq also show support holding steady for the US effort, even after last week's bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad. In an ABC News poll released Monday, 56 percent approved of the Bush's handling of Iraq, the same level as in July. But according to a Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll, Bush's presidential leadership index has fallen from 69.4 in April, at the beginning of the Iraq conflict, to 58.0 this month.

'A precarious spot'

Indeed, the long term for Bush appears murky, and raises a crucial political question as the 2004 campaign heats up: Can he keep the public with him on Iraq for the long haul? The steady pace of American casualties shows no sign of abating. Sensing Bush's potential vulnerability on Iraq, the Democratic presidential candidates will become only more vocal, analysts say.

And as the Bush administration resists calls for a major course correction - such as sending substantially more US troops to stabilize Iraq or working through the UN to enlarge international participation - the president may face many more "pushback weeks" between now and November of next year.

"He's in a really precarious spot," says Del Ali, a nonpartisan pollster based in suburban Washington. "I think the public has an understanding that it's not going to be overnight regime change. But there are three factors he's got to be aware of that could backfire on him."

Those, Mr. Ali says, are the US economy, the growing casualty count, and the need to present a more specific mechanism for how Iraq becomes a democracy.

"If the economy turns for the better, the public can be more forgiving about Iraq," says Ali. "But if the economy doesn't turn, everything magnifies for him."

The two issues are increasingly linked. On Tuesday the Congressional Budget Office forecast a record $480 billion budget deficit next year, and if Bush's tax cuts are made permanent, the federal government will run deficits for at least the next nine years. Annual deficits - made much larger if a proposed $400 billion prescription-drug benefit is added to Medicare - would drive up interest rates and increase federal debt payments, which would mean less money available for federal programs.

How the chips fall

Meanwhile, the price tag on continuing US military operation in Iraq stands at about $1 billion a week. And the reconstruction effort needs a massive infusion of money, some of which will have to come from the US, Ambassador Paul Bremer, US Administrator in Iraq, told The Washington Post Tuesday.

If the American public increasingly believes that the cost of occupying and rebuilding Iraq is hurting the US economy, Bush's Iraq policy could come under fire, analysts say. According to a Newsweek poll released Saturday 7 of 10 Americans are concerned war costs will hurt the economy.

In Arizona, an important early-primary state for the Democrats, Bush remains popular, and support is holding steady for his policy in Iraq, says Margaret Kenski, a Tucson-based GOP pollster.

"There's actually a little more concern right now about the economy and the budget deficit, which of course is tied to the war," says Ms. Kenski. "The greatest danger [Bush] faces is Republicans not voting. I can't see them voting for Howard Dean, but I think the turnout rate might be low if the economy doesn't improve."

For that reason, some analysts foresee Bush remaining the lead administration spokesman on the economy, while delegating more to get his message out on Iraq. "He doesn't want to be overexposed on [Iraq], so we'll see a lot of Rice and [Vice President] Cheney, in particular, on Iraq and Afghanistan," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University.

But on the economy, "he's got to be the spokesperson and cheerleader," Professor Baker adds, because of the memory of his father's failure to win reelection over the perception that he was out of the touch on the economy. Still, Bush will continue to speak out from time to time on foreign and defense matters. "There's going to be a kind of push and shove that will go on until the presidential election," says Baker. "He's going to time his responses, and locate them in places where there will be a receptive audience."

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