Tuesday, June 22, 2004

# Posted 11:29 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

AMERICA SAYS BUSH IS A LIAR: The WaPo continues to amaze with its abominable coverage of US public opinion. On yesterday's front page, it reported that
Public anxiety over mounting casualties in Iraq and doubts about long-term consequences of the war continue to rise and have helped to erase President Bush's once-formidable advantage over Sen. John F. Kerry.
At least the Post got one fact right: Kerry is surging in the polls, especially on issue of whom voters prefer to conduct the war on terror. But Kerry's surge has absolutely nothing to do with public anxiety about casualties in Iraq or the long term consequences of the war.

Unsurprisingly, the Post compiles all the available evidence of public disenchantment with the occupation, but ignores all of the evidence that point's to Bush's success. One month ago, 38% of Americans thought that we are making "significant progress" toward the establish of a democratic government in Iraq. 57% disagreed. But the now the split is 50-48 in Bush's favor.

An increasing number of Americans think that Bush has a "clear plan" for handling the situation in Iraq, although the split is still 50-48 against the President. Surprisingly, 51% think that the United States is making "significant progress toward restoring civil order" in Iraq, with 48% disagreeing. Thus, it isn't suprising that 44% now approve of Bush's handling of Iraq, up 4% from last month. (55% disapprove, down from 58.)

Now, one can make a pretty strong argument that all of these good feelings about Iraq reflect the American public's overvaluation of the approaching transfer of sovereignty on June 30. After all what kind of sovereignty can Iraq have with 150,000 American soldiers on its soil?

As it turns out, the American public seems to understand this dynamic pretty well. 53% say that the United States, and not Iraq, will hold real power after the handover. Moreover, an overwhelming 77% disapprove, saying that the Iraqis themselves should be in charge.

So what is going on here? If things are looking up for the President in Iraq, why do more Americans now trust John Kerry to wage the war on terror? It turns out that there is a very simple answer to this question and the WaPo completely missed it: The American public has come to believe that Bush is a liar.

According to the WaPo/Poll, 39% of Americans believe that Bush is "honest and trustworthy" while 52% say the same about Kerry. Strangely, the Post provides no trend data on this question, so it's hard to know what the numbers mean...unless you invest the effort necessary to dig up poll results from two months ago and compare.

On April 18th, 55% said Bush was honest and trustworthy. Previously, that number had never dropped below 52% and went as high as 71% in mid-2002. Now, can one make a strong case that this dramatic change in Bush's honesty ratings is responsible for the nosedive in public opinion about the War on Terror?

Absolutely. Judging by the size of the headlines alone, the 9/11 Commission's finding that there was no "collaborative relationship" between Saddam and Al Qaeda has been the biggest story so far this year -- and it played out in the days immediately preceding the WaPo's most recent poll.

Technically speaking, I think it's fair to say that Bush never lied about the relationship between Saddam and Al Qaeda. (I'm not sure I would be so kind to Cheney.) Regardless, Bush's statements have been confusing, disingenuous and utterly unbecoming of a president.

The big question now is whether the damage done to Bush's reputation for honesty is permanent. If the good news of Saddam's capture provided a temporary spike in public assessments of the situation in Iraq, perhaps the impact of the intensive coverage of the Commission's finding will slowly fade during a long, hot summer.

Or perhaps not. My gut feeling says that American voters pay far more attention to a President' personal characteristics than they do to what's happening on the ground half a world away. Bush may recover some of his lost ground, but I suspect that a significant amount of the damage will be permanent.

UDPATE: I just noticed an EJ Dionne column that explains why the Commission's report is so damning:
The battle over the al Qaeda-Hussein connection is ground zero in the fight over the administration's credibility.

On the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, the administration has alibis. It may have ignored contrary evidence on the existence of those weapons and it may have pressured intelligence agencies to reach conclusions that would justify war. But the administration can point to many Democrats, and even Europeans, who thought those weapons existed.
But when it comes to Saddam and Al Qaeda, Bush and Cheney are all alone. I don't agree with much else Dionne says, but he got that much right.
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