By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 28, 2008
For years, President Bush and his advisers expressed frustration that the White House received little credit for the nation's strong economic performance because of public discontent about the Iraq war. Today, the president is getting little credit for improved security in Iraq, as the public increasingly focuses on a struggling U.S. economy.
That is the problem Bush faces as he prepares to deliver his seventh and probably final State of the Union address tonight. For the first time in four years, he will come before Congress able to report some progress in tamping down violence in Iraq. Yet the public appears to have moved on from the war -- and possibly from Bush himself.
The economy has supplanted Iraq as the top public concern, and with voters shifting their focus toward the presidential primaries, Bush faces a steep challenge in persuading Americans to heed his words on the war, economic policy or any other issue, according to administration officials, lawmakers and outside observers.
"Very large segments of the American people have written him off already and have moved on to the next chapter," said Jeremy Rosner, a Clinton White House aide and Democratic pollster. Even some of the Republican presidential candidates appear eager to distance themselves from the president.
White House officials and their allies argue that the turmoil in the nation's housing and financial markets provides Bush a new opportunity to lead, especially given his newfound alliance on an economic stimulus plan with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who will be sitting behind the president in the House chamber tonight.
"I do think people will pay attention," said Ken Duberstein, who served as White House chief of staff in the final year of President Ronald Reagan's second term. "They are looking for leadership and they are looking for Washington to do something."
The scope of Bush's challenge was underscored by a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, conducted Jan. 9 to 12, which showed that the economy has overtaken the war as the key worry for voters and that Bush is receiving no credit for improving conditions in Iraq. According to the poll, 29 percent of voters now see the economy as the top issue in the 2008 elections, compared with 20 percent who cite Iraq.
Bush's overall approval rating was 32 percent, his lowest ever, with 30 percent of the public approving of his handling of Iraq. His handling of the economy rated even worse, with 28 percent approval compared with 41 percent a year ago.
Bush and his advisers are well aware of the public verdict, yet their approach has been to focus instead on the levers of power they still control and to use them to accomplish as much as they can in the final year of the administration. Tonight's State of the Union address will look ahead to "unfinished business" that White House aides say can be completed with some goodwill from the Democratic-controlled Congress.
Some of that business seems likely to remain unfinished. Bush has long wanted to make permanent the tax cuts approved early in his term, but Democrats appear to have little interest. The tax cuts are set to expire during the next president's first term. It is also unclear how much leverage Bush will have to secure free-trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. The trade deals have been stalled in Congress over workers' rights and other Democratic concerns.
The president may be better positioned to win reauthorization of existing initiatives he will discuss tonight, such as his program to permit wireless surveillance of suspected terrorists and his ambitious accountability system for the nation's public schools. Aides are also promising modest changes in areas such as housing, health care and Bush's "faith-based" program to assist religious social service organizations, but they concede that the domestic reforms he once sought for immigration and Social Security are out of reach.
"It is unrealistic to expect that this Congress is going to take on such big problems this year," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, who suggested that Bush will not offer a retrospective assessment of his legacy. "He does feel that he's given his all the first seven years, and that in this eighth year, that 12 months is a long time to be able to get a lot of things done."
But even if the president does not dwell on his legacy publicly, he is aware that it will be shaped by the economy and Iraq. Both issues will figure prominently in tonight's prime-time address, perhaps his last major opportunity to break through the din of the campaign trail and speak directly to the public.
On the economy, the president is seeking to steer the country away from a recession and has accelerated his efforts to develop economic stimulus legislation. His speech tonight will press Congress to complete work on the package, which features tax rebates and incentives for businesses to invest in facilities and equipment.
On Iraq, his task for his final year is perhaps more daunting: After nearly five years of sectarian violence in Iraq, he wants to hand over a stable, functioning country to his successor. Aides said that Bush will tout progress over the past year in Iraq, where his troop buildup and counterinsurgency strategy helped reduce attacks by about 60 percent, even while he prepares Americans for a difficult year.
There is mixed evidence that this message is resonating. Polls suggest that the past year has seen gradual improvement in public perceptions of Iraq, but voters still view the war as a mistake and give Bush poor marks for his approach.
Democrats contend that the president's new security strategy for Iraq has not produced the corollary political progress and reconciliation that he said would result from the "breathing space" produced by more U.S. troops. "What people understand is that while there may be some tactical progress on the ground, the overall strategic situation has not improved dramatically," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
White House advisers realize that speeches alone will not bolster support for the war, and that only improved "facts on the ground" can sway the public.
But they also know there is little that Congress can do to interfere with Bush's approach to the conflict in his final year, and they believe the public will be heartened by a gradual return of combat units from Iraq under the withdrawal plan he outlined in September.
Perhaps the biggest question Bush faces about Iraq is whether he will go beyond this plan, under which U.S. troop levels are scheduled to fall from 160,000 to 130,000 by midsummer. Some generals in the Pentagon hope to pull several more combat brigades out of Iraq by the end of the Bush term to ease the stress on the Army caused by the conflicts there and in Afghanistan.
Aides said Bush will not give answers about potential further troop reductions during the State of the Union speech, preferring to wait until he hears a recommendation from Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, this spring.
But they said it is possible Bush may push back a bit against the Pentagon, making it clear -- as he did recently when he met with Petraeus in Kuwait -- that he is willing to stop the drawdown if he sees a security need.
"He doesn't want to backslide," said one of the administration's top officials on Iraq, who would discuss internal deliberations only on the condition of anonymity. The official said Bush wants to put Iraq "on a sustainable basis" for the next president -- and will be careful about risking any recent security gains by leaving too few troops in place.
Allies and opponents predict that the president will be cautious in discussing Iraq tonight, knowing that even continued security or political improvements this year would leave the country far short of the thriving beacon of Middle East democracy Bush once envisioned.
In the past year, "there has been a dramatic improvement from a disaster that was about to befall us to a situation where the next administration might have choices," said retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who in the past has offered grim assessments of Iraq.
"I hope he's modest in his appraisal of the situation."