Bush's sinking feeling

One month ago, the president gave the nation an $87 billion bill for Iraq. His numbers have been sliding ever since.

Published October 7, 2003 2:45PM (EDT)

For most of his presidency, George Bush was defined by a number on a calculator and a date on the calendar: 537, the thin margin of votes by which he won the 2000 recount in Florida, and 9/11, the day he was transformed into a popular wartime president.

Today, though, a different number looms over the White House -- and it's one that may live in infamy among devoted Republicans: $87 billion, the amount of money the president wants Congress to spend this year securing and rebuilding Iraq. The figure also comes with its own indelibly marked date: Sept. 7, one month ago today, when Bush spoke to the nation and made his bold 11-figure request.

Within days of Bush's prime-time address, his approval ratings, and the support for his reconstruction plans in Iraq, began a steep decline. In retrospect, it's clear the speech became an unlikely presidential turning point -- and possible tipping point -- and one the White House has yet to recover from.

Pollster Stan Greenberg told the Wall Street Journal he couldn't "find a parallel moment" in history when a president's approval rating dropped so dramatically following a nationally televised address. Greenberg and fellow pollster Robert Teeter, working for that newspaper, found Bush's rating in late September fell to a new low of 49 percent.

What's so unusual about the impact the speech has had is that neither Democrats nor the press jumped on Bush immediately following the address. In real time, on the night of Sept. 7, TV pundits generally gave a wobbly thumbs-up -- nothing unusually harsh -- while assembled politicians gave their predictable, partisan assessments. (Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., told CNN, "it was a terrific speech.")

Instead, over the next few days there seemed to be a collective "holy shit" moment for an awful lot of Americans contemplating the cost of the war and the occupation's duration. From Erie, Pa., to Berkeley County, W. Va., and other key swing voting districts, the reviews were in, and Bush got panned.

"It was the moment when White House spin collided with the public's appreciation [of] reality," says Joseph Cirincione, author or "Deadly Arsenals: Tracking Weapons of Mass Destruction." "It tipped the scale and made people realize we were in Iraq too deep. Nothing the president said gave public hope we'd soon get out of this."

Unfortunately for the White House, the fallout from the poorly thought-out speech, which painted the situation in Iraq with a naive, rosy brush, didn't confine itself to the issue of the war. In a strange way, the political misstep of Sept. 7 seemed to kindle unrelated troubles, producing the worst political month of Bush's presidency, punctuated last week by a seven-day span that resembled a Republican car wreck.

It was a week when the administration was back on its heels defending a potentially criminal White House leak, its centerpiece prosecution in the war on terrorism began to unravel in court, U.S. soldiers were suffering an average of 17 attacks per day, and weapons inspector David Kay reported back to Congress that despite a $300 million search, he and his team had failed to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. That's not even taking into account California GOP gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger responding to allegations he groped women and praised Hitler, or de facto party spokesman Rush Limbaugh losing his job at ESPN for making racially divisive remarks, only to find himself at the center of drug allegations.

The speech that started it all reportedly came at the request of Republicans who urged the White House to launch a public relations initiative to relieve worries about the occupation, the ongoing violence and the escalating cost. Bush did, but almost nobody saw the voters' widely negative reaction coming.

"If you go to the public and ask for support and don't get it, that speaks loudly," says George Edwards, the author of "On Deaf Ears: The Limit of the Bully Pulpit." Edwards, a distinguished professor of politics at Texas A&M, agrees that some factors did not work in Bush's favor, such as the ratings for Sept. 7: Only 20 percent of American households tuned in.

"The president would have preferred for more people to hear the $87 billion number directly from him, so he'd be able to frame it however he wanted," says Edwards. "Suffice it to say others did not frame it as positively as he did." Also, reading the speech off a teleprompter in the empty Cabinet Room, Bush looked stiff and uncomfortable.

More important, though, was the content of the speech. Despite steady reports all summer about attacks on U.S. soldiers, terrorists pouring into Iraq from other countries, and simmering discontent among Iraqis over the American occupation, Bush refused to adjust his spin, and clung to the same rhetoric the White House had been using since the spring. That meant saying that "Iraq is now the central front" in the war on terrorism, while comparing the rebuilding there to the Marshall Plan in Europe following World War II.

"I didn't see the speech itself as having huge defects," says Dan McGroarty, a former speechwriter for the first President Bush. "But maybe there was a benefit to being more candid."

"It wasn't a compelling case," adds Edwards. "He said, 'We've got a plan, it's working well.' That's not credible to the American public. The whole reason for the speech was to give Republicans cover so they could vote for the $87 billion, but he didn't do that."

The subsequent poll results have been stark for the White House. According to last week's New York Times/CBS News survey, just 47 percent of Americans approve of the way Bush is handling the situation in Iraq. That's down 10 points since August. A bipartisan 61 percent don't support Bush's request for $87 billion.

According to a Gallup poll taken between Sept. 19-21, 50 percent think the war in Iraq was worth it. That's down from 63 percent on the eve of Bush's September address. Gallup also found Bush lost 7 points off his approval rating immediately following his Sept. 7 speech, hitting the lowest point of his presidency.

Meanwhile, the New York Times/CBS found 51 percent -- also a new low -- approve of the job he's doing as president. Perhaps even more telling was the 42 percent who disapprove of his performance as president. That's the highest negative rating the ongoing Times/CBS poll has ever recorded during Bush's presidency.

Even the Fox News poll -- which has routinely found higher approval ratings for Bush than other surveys -- reported that his standing fell from 58 to 50 percent in the two weeks immediately following his Sept. 7 prime-time speech. That 8-point drop represents the biggest survey-to-survey decline recorded by Fox since Bush took office.

One month later, maybe the only positive take-away for the suddenly stressed White House reelection team is that Bush's disastrous address wasn't delivered on Sept. 7, 2004.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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