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U.S.: Bush Comes Under Fire In Congress, Media As Popularity Slips

U.S. President George W. Bush is coming under increasing fire in the media and Congress over Iraq, the economy, and other issues. Politicians and the media had shied away from undue criticism of Bush after the terrorist attacks of September 2001, when the president's popularity soared. But their changed tone may signal a new approach toward Bush.

Washington, 31 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Perhaps the best example of the tougher attitude toward the administration of President George W. Bush came this week from Democratic and Republican members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

On 29 July, the hearing turned heated when Senator Joseph Biden -- the committee's ranking Democrat, from the eastern state of Delaware -- accused the Republican administration of failing to be completely honest with Americans about the future costs of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

The cost of sustaining 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq is currently estimated at some $4 billion a month.

Biden and other senators repeatedly asked White House budget director Joshua Bolten to be more specific about the costs that U.S. taxpayers will have to pay for the Iraq operation in 2004.

But when Bolten replied that the White House could not possibly know what the exact costs would be since the situation in Iraq is fluid, Biden blew up:

"Oh, come on now! Does anybody here at the table think we're going to be down below 100,000 forces in the next calendar year? Raise your hand, any one of you. You know it's going to be more than that. See, you know it's going to be at least $2.5 billion a month. Give me a break, will you?! When are you guys going to start being honest with us?"

When Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, also facing the panel, denied that the administration was being dishonest, Biden replied that -- at the least -- the administration lacked "candor."

Other senators agreed. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, said: "I will say that I do agree with Senator Biden when he says that there's a certain lack of candor and honesty here. We know exactly what these things are going to cost, based on what we know so far."

Even Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee, from Bush's own Republican Party, accused the White House of shifting its justification for the Iraq war from weapons of mass destruction at the start to former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's atrocious human rights record.

"What are we doing there [in Iraq]?" Chafee asked Wolfowitz.

The criticism in Congress comes at a time when Bush himself is coming under increasing criticism in the American media and has taken a fall in recent public opinion polls.

At a rare news conference yesterday at the White House, Bush was asked tough questions by reporters about the war in Iraq, the erroneous intelligence cited in his January "State of the Union" address, and the faltering U.S. economy.

A recent poll by Gallup shows Bush's approval rating down to about 58 percent, compared to more than 70 percent during the Iraq war just a few months ago.

Another survey by Zogby International, one of America's top polling firms, shows Bush's approval rating falling to 53 percent, with 46 percent of Americans negatively assessing his job performance. That's a 15 percent drop since October and a 5 percent fall since June.

John Zogby, the firm's president, tells RFE/RL that Bush enjoyed a honeymoon from criticism after the attacks of September 2001, when the president's popularity was more than 80 percent:

"When a president's numbers are high, in the 60s and 70s, it becomes very difficult for media and for members of Congress of both parties to attack a president, unless they're simply going for their own narrow constituent base," Zogby said.

Zogby says Bush's popularity has spiked during international crises, such as the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq war. But as soon as those moments pass, so, too, do the high ratings. Zogby says Bush's honeymoon may now be ending.

"His job performance ratings are not good on the economy, on the environment, on health care, even on taxes, which has been a benchmark of his domestic policy. So you could be looking at a presidency that's in trouble going into an election year next year," he says.

But other polling experts say Bush's fall is hardly a surprise and may not signal any significant problems for his re-election bid.

Kathryn Bowman is with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. Bowman tells RFE/RL that Bush's approval rating has simply returned to the levels he enjoyed before the war. She says it's still above 50 percent, a figure that would go far toward ensuring his re-election in November 2004.

Bowman says that while the media and Democrats have sought to play up Bush's admission of error in using faulty intelligence to justify the Iraq war, most Americans still support the toppling of Hussein and accept that there were many reasons behind that effort.

"Clearly, if you're a Democratic candidate and thinking about a presidential campaign or senatorial and congressional campaigns in 2004, you use whatever arrows you have in your quiver. Whenever you suspect vulnerability, you push and you test. So I think we're seeing a great deal of that going on among Democrats right now. Whether that will stick, will seriously affect the president, I think remains to be seen," Bowman says.

Indeed, a poll published today in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" shows that 66 percent of Americans approve of Bush's handling of the war on terrorism, and roughly seven out of 10 Americans support the war to topple Hussein.

But Zogby says his polls show that a generic Democrat -- with no name -- would win about as many votes as Bush right now. But Zogby says the irony is that when stacked up against Bush in an imaginary contest, none of the Democrats actually running to become their party's presidential candidate comes out on top.

That means there's potential for Democrats, he says, but they still lack a candidate with a clear message and a compelling personality.

And Bowman notes that Bush still "has a lot of room to maneuver," meaning that his standing can go up or down before next year's election depending on a variety of factors, such as how the situation in Iraq pans out or whether the economy improves.