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U.S.: Bush Rides Wave Of Popularity Into New Year

Just a couple of months ago, U.S. President George W. Bush looked vulnerable heading into an election year, with chaos in Iraq and a stagnant U.S. economy weighing on his re-election chances. But as 2003 comes to an end, the administration is suddenly basking in the glow of good news on Iraq, the economy, and efforts to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Washington, 23 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush got his Christmas presents early this year.

After falling in the polls, Bush has bounced back following an economic upsurge and the capture of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

In the autumn, Bush's approval ratings dipped below 50 percent for the first time since before the September 2001 terrorist attacks, as Americans grew weary of bad news from Iraq and a slumbering economy. In a Gallup poll on 12 November, 45 percent of Americans disapproved of his leadership.

A month later, with Hussein's bearded and defeated face splashed across U.S. newspapers and television screens, Bush's approval rating shot up to 63 percent in a poll by the same organization. Contributing to the rise was news that the U.S. economy had grown by more than 8 percent in the third quarter of 2003.

Suddenly, Bush has the best approval ratings of any president heading into his final year in office since Ronald Reagan in 1983. His ratings are much better than the 41 percent of his father, who lost re-election in 1992, and the 50 percent enjoyed by Bill Clinton, who won a second term in office in 1996.

Patrick Basham is an American politics expert for the Cato Institute: "He's finished [the year] on a high. It's been a very good two or three weeks for [Bush]. You know, it was not very long ago that things were looking -- I wouldn't say bleak -- but it was quite unpredictable. It was very hard to say what would actually happen. The Bush administration can now connect the dots [and say] that in terms of national security, in terms of the economy, their plans are working."

And that's just what the White House is doing.

Even as the administration warned on 21 December that Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network may be planning new terrorist attacks against the United States, it also sought to persuade Americans that Washington is winning the war on terrorism but that, like in Iraq, it will take a while to see concrete results.

"We have captured or eliminated two-thirds of the Al-Qaeda leadership, so there has been great success," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "But the war continues. And again, the best way to win the war on terrorism and prevent something like September 11 from ever happening again is to take the fight to the enemy. And that's exactly what this administration is committed to doing and seeing through."

And Americans seem to believe they are. Two days before Hussein's capture, according to Gallup, Bush was leading current Democratic front-runner Howard Dean by a margin of 50 percent to 46 percent. But after Hussein's capture, Bush's lead jumped to 23 points -- or 60 percent to 37 percent.

Dean has based his appeal on a left-leaning message of opposition to the war in Iraq. Dean, refusing to backtrack, still insists that the occupation of Iraq and Hussein's capture have not made America safer.

But while two months ago almost a majority of Americans agreed with Dean that the Iraq war has not been worth it, the latest polls show more than 55 percent of people see the war as being worth the price. Since the war began, 462 U.S. soldiers and 79 coalition troops have been killed while serving in Iraq.

Bush supporters say the latest news shows that the administration has been right all along on Iraq and the war on terrorism.

In "The New York Times" yesterday, columnist William Safire argued that the administration's long-held contention that the Iraq war would pressure other "rogue" regimes in the region to change their behavior is coming true. As examples, Safire cited Libya's announcement that it will abandon its programs of weapons of mass destruction, and Iran agreeing to allow the United Nations to inspect its nuclear facilities.

Many analysts, however, say Libya's turnaround was more the result of a decade of patient diplomacy and punishing international economic sanctions.

But University of Michigan professor Raymond Tanter, a former national security official with the Reagan administration, agrees with Safire. Tanter has long argued that overthrowing Hussein would pressure other despots to change their behavior. He says Gadhafi must have had Hussein in mind when he approached Washington to start secret talks as the United States invaded Iraq last March.

"President Bush is on a roll. The dominoes are falling, and he is quite correctly taking the credit. That's the good news. The bad news is that while one takes the credit for the good news, one has to beware of other rogues who haven't changed their roguish character," Tanter said.

Despite his strong edge in the polls, however, Bush has a long way to go before the election next November.

Phyllis Bennis of the liberal Institute for Policy Studies says the 2004 campaign could depend on events on the ground more than any other in recent memory. She believes the initial surge of support for Bush after Hussein's capture is likely to cool off as the new year brings more sobering news from Iraq. She says the insurgency is likely to continue and maybe even intensify as Washington seeks to turn over political power to Iraqis by July:

"We're going to see a very different position understood in the U.S. There's going to be a broader understanding that getting rid of Saddam did not solve all the problems. And I think that the temporary jump in Bush's ratings will reflect that growing understanding, as we get into the new year, that things are not any better than they were," Bennis said.