Bush poll jump still short of father's ratings in 1991

Surveys suggest president has failed to win over bloc of core Democrats

War In Iraq

April 19, 2003|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush has enjoyed a rise in public approval since he ordered the invasion of Iraq, but far less than the stratospheric jump that buoyed his father just after the 1991 Persian Gulf war. The difference, polls suggest, is that Bush has failed to win over a bloc of core Democrats who remain unconvinced that the war was justified this time.

Seventy-two percent of Americans approve of the president's handling of his job - up from 55 percent immediately before the war, according to a poll released yesterday by the Pew Research Center.

A surge in public support is typical when a nation rallies around a wartime president. But Bush's rise is modest compared with that of his father, who attained a level of popularity unseen by a president since the end of World War II.

In late February 1991, as the war to liberate Kuwait was ending, President George Bush's job approval ratings peaked near 90 percent, a jump of nearly 30 percentage points from his level before the war.

At the time, the elder Bush enjoyed support from a large majority of Democrats and independents. Though many of them wanted to delay war to give economic sanctions time to persuade Iraq to end its occupation of Kuwait, most did not question the need for U.S. military action.

"In the father's time, there was a debate about when, but not whether," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew center. "But now, we had a real debate about the justification for war. And the war reinforced the hostility many Democrats feel toward the president, especially liberal Democrats."

As each of the two wars was winding down, Republicans overwhelmingly said they approved of the president's performance. Twelve years ago, most Democrats - 72 percent in a Gallup poll - also backed the elder Bush's handling of his job. But this time, only 52 percent of Democrats back the younger Bush, according to the Pew poll.

Other national polls report results similar to those of the Pew survey, which was taken April 10-16. They also suggest that even as more Americans are concluding that the United States has won the war in Iraq, Bush's approval rating has remained at roughly the level it reached before the fall of Baghdad.

Some analysts said they were surprised that the president has not seen a greater outpouring of support, given the swift toppling of Hussein's regime.

Still, they point out that the first gulf war began with a clear provocation, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, and had a clear endpoint: the expulsion of Iraqi forces.

This time, the U.S. military mission in Iraq has not really ended. Unanswered questions persist, such as whether Saddam Hussein will be captured or is dead, and whether U.S. forces will find weapons of mass destruction or direct links between Iraq and al-Qaida.

"You could say it is remarkable Bush's political standing is as high as it is," even with key objectives of the war unfulfilled, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "If they find weapons of mass destruction, or al-Qaida ties, expect another bump in the polls."

Lee M. Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., said that Bush has failed to harness the backing of Democrats and independents who want him to focus more on domestic matters, such as the economy and health care, than on foreign policy.

Apart from the bump in his approval ratings, Miringoff said, Bush should be concerned that only a minority of Americans say they would re-elect him. In the Pew survey, only 48 percent said they planned to vote for Bush next year. And in a recent poll by the Marist Institute, only 40 percent of Americans said they planned to re-elect Bush.

"When you look at these questions of re-election," Miringoff said, "you can't even tell a war occurred."

Analysts generally agree that the economy - whether it fully recovers, and how Americans view Bush's stewardship of it - will go far to determine whether the president is re-elected. After enjoying his stunning postwar popularity, Bush's father was seen as paying too little attention to Americans' economic hardships, and he lost his re-election bid.

The younger Bush, who is spending the Easter weekend at his Texas ranch, will return to Washington on Monday. Aides say he will hit the road next week to speak to Americans about what the White House calls his two highest priorities - protecting the nation's security and stimulating the economy.

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