The pictures out of Baghdad Tuesday morning spoke volumes. George W. Bush is beaming, the new Iraqi leader at his side, after pulling off a secret flight to the country that is the make-or-break project of his presidency. On his five-hour visit, President Bush met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, other top Iraqis, and US troops, in a show of resolve aimed at war-weary audiences in Iraq, America, and the rest of the world.
But Mr. Bush has more to smile about than recent successes in Iraq, foremost the completion of the new government and elimination of terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, has learned he won't be indicted in the CIA leak case. And the latest Gallup poll shows Bush at his highest job approval – 38 percent of the public – since February.
Not only has Bush been edging steadily upward in overall job performance, after hitting bottom in early May at 31 percent, by Gallup's measure, his approval ratings on individual issues – from Iraq and energy to the economy and immigration – have bumped up as well.
"In general, we're seeing a rising tide lifting all boats," says Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll.
Mr. Newport cautions that it's impossible to know for sure why poll numbers go up or down, and notes that Bush's job approval number went up only two points after Zarqawi's death compared with the poll taken the week before. And, he adds, Bush was already on an upward trajectory before last week.
Still, for a president who seemed for months unable to catch a break, the new sense of momentum could have a spillover effect in his dealing with Congress, where he has struggled to demonstrate much political capital.
Bush still faces a steep climb on Capitol Hill in his effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform – enhanced border security plus a guest-worker program that critics call "amnesty" – but at least he is making headway in public opinion: Gallup shows public approval of his handling of immigration at 38 percent, up from 26 percent in late April. When Gallup polls directly on Bush's plan, a majority of the public is supportive.
Some of Bush's good news comes under the column labeled "Bullets Dodged." Last week, in a special congressional election to fill out the term of imprisoned former Rep. Randy Cunningham (R) of California, the Republican candidate eked out a narrow victory. If the Democrat had won – in a solidly GOP district – the Republican Party would have had cause for panic heading into a hard-fought race this fall to keep control of Congress. But that didn't happen.
The second dodged bullet – the announcement Monday night that Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald does not intend to indict Mr. Rove – means the GOP's political mastermind is free to focus on the midterm elections.
In addition, the Democrats have lost the hoped-for image of a Rove perp walk in their argument that the Bush White House, and Republican Party, is consumed by a "culture of corruption."
On Monday night, as prosecutors were informing Rove's lawyer that there would be no indictment, Rove was in New Hampshire attacking Democrats before a Republican audience. He accused the Democrats of wanting to "cut and run" from Iraq, according to wire reports.
The White House, of course, is not out of the woods legally. Former top aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby remains under indictment on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice related to the case of the blown identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame. His case goes to trial in January, and Vice President Cheney may be called to testify.
The news on Rove, revealed Tuesday morning, was immediately overtaken by Bush's sudden appearance in Baghdad's Green Zone, on a day when he was scheduled to remain at Camp David with his war cabinet and meet with the new Iraqi government by videoconference. The last time Bush visited Baghdad, also unannounced in advance for security reasons, was on Thanksgiving Day 2003, eight months after the US-led invasion of Iraq. The primary image was of him serving turkey dinner to US troops.
This time, Bush kept his plan for a videoconference, but appeared on the Baghdad screen rather than the Camp David one. Bush spoke first: "I've come to not only look you in the eye; I've also come to tell you that when America gives its word, it will keep its word – that it's in our interest that Iraq succeed," he said.
According to a White House press corps pool report, Prime Minister Maliki expressed his country's appreciation for US efforts in Iraq. Then he closed by conveying the hope that US troops could soon withdraw from Iraq, but offered no detail on when that could begin.
"Maliki has emerged as a serious potential leader with a serious cabinet," wrote Anthony Cordesman, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, after news broke of Bush's trip to Baghdad.