Public Waiting for Congressional Democrats to Take Action

Three new surveys released immediately prior to the sixth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and the progress reports of Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker show that the country’s political environment remains essentially unchanged – bad news for the White House and congressional Republicans. Most important to the current moment, attitudes on Iraq are unmoved and voters indicate little receptivity to reports of progress from Petraeus and the Bush administration. The wealth of data on Iraq in these new polls reveals a great deal about public attitudes on Iraq and how inflexible they are. Key findings include a clear sense that the surge is not working, skepticism of the Petraeus report, unwavering support for withdrawal and a clear deadline, and a clear belief that the war in Iraq is not making us safer.

After a long August recess that saw President Bush retreat to Crawford and members of Congress return to their districts to hear directly form their constituents, the country’s political debate has been brought into sharp focus by today’s sixth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and the reports to Congress from Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker on American progress in Iraq.  Three polls conducted in the last week and released yesterday show that little has changed in the country’s political environment.  Americans remain deeply pessimistic about the country’s direction (24 percent right direction, 71 percent wrong track in the CBS/New York Times poll), with the war in Iraq continuing to drive the country’s mood.  Lukewarm ratings of the economy are exacerbated by very low expectations, and crises in the mortgage and housing industries have combined with rising prices and instability in the stock market to drive down consumer confidence.  One month ago, the ABC News/Washington Post Consumer Comfort Index stood right at its 22-year average of -9, but it has now fallen to -17 on weakened ratings of the national economy and buying climate.

The August recess and its accompanying decrease in the heated political dialogue that marked much of the summer did nothing to help President Bush and his disastrously low ratings.  Overall job approval for Bush remains at just 32 percent, while nearly twice as many Americans (63 percent) disapprove.  Majorities continue to disapprove of his performance on every issue tested, with his lowest marks consistently coming on Iraq – 26 percent approve, 71 percent disapprove in the CBS/Times poll and 34 percent approve, 65 percent disapprove (including 53 percent strongly disapprove) in the ABC/Post survey.

The numbers aren’t much better for Bush on the campaign against terrorism (40 percent approve, 52 percent disapprove in CBS/Times and 46 percent approve, 51 percent disapprove in ABC/Post), the economy (32 percent approve, 60 percent disapprove), or foreign policy (26 percent approve, 67 percent disapprove).  All of these data further reinforce the analysis that Americans effectively fired George W. Bush in the 2006 elections and are looking beyond his administration to the new Democratic Congress and the 2008 presidential election for the change they so desperately seek.

Presidential Job Approval

Mixed Findings for Democrats in Congress

    There are concerns for Democrats as well, as job approval for the Congress is even lower than for Bush – 23 percent approve, 66 percent disapprove.  Interestingly, whereas attitudes toward Bush and even the country’s direction are highly partisan – with little difference between Democrats and Independents and much higher marks among Republicans – approval of the Congress is virtually identical across the spectrum (23 percent approve among both Democrats and Independents, 22 percent approve among Republicans).

This is an indication that the very negative ratings of the Congress are more tied to entrenched attitudes toward the institution itself than the performance of the new Democratic Congress and is reinforced by the fact that Democrats have consistently enjoyed large advantages over Republicans on virtually all domestic issues and continue to enjoy double-digit margins as the party voters trust on Iraq – 42 to 31 percent in the ABC/Post release and 42 to 32 percent (including 43 to 21 percent among Independents) in the CBS/Times survey.  Democrats also hold a smaller margin on the campaign against terrorism (39 to 36 percent) in the ABC/Post poll

Certainly, Democrats should be very concerned about the low esteem in which the Congress they now lead is held.  The longer voters perceive a lack of progress and a failure to produce the changes they demanded in the last election, the greater the danger will be for Democrats.  But it is clear from data on which party Americans trust more to handle the major issues facing the country as well as the sustained Democratic advantage in the generic congressional race since the last election that voters are still willing to give Democrats the benefit of the doubt and are looking to the party as their best chance for real change.

Even if President Bush and the Republicans in Congress are determined to block Democratic efforts – as they already have on Iraq and stem cells and as they have threatened to do on student loans, lower drug prices, homeland security, and children’s health care, to name just a few – Democrats should still engage in those fights, show the public that they are committed to these goals, and force congressional Republicans to oppose popular issues for which they must answer in the next election.

No Shift on Iraq – Large Majority Support Gradual Withdrawal, Deadline

    The White House is spending this week trying to sell the country on the notion that there is progress being made in Iraq and that beginning a withdrawal now would amount to ‘surrender’ and ‘defeat’ when victory is within our reach.  But these latest polls suggest that Americans aren’t buying what the Bush administration is selling – a ‘new and improved’ version of the same old stay the course strategy that they have roundly rejected.  The CBS/Times poll finds that 71 percent of Americans believe the Bush administration is going to continue its current Iraq strategy regardless of what recommendations are offered by Petraeus and others; the ABC/Post poll finds 66 percent in agreement.

There is a tremendous amount of data in this week’s polls supporting the basic conclusion that Americans are set in their views on Iraq and unlikely to shift in the face of this week’s events, but we highlight some of the most important themes below:

1. The surge is not producing the progress needed to justify the costs to the United States.

All three new polls, despite differences in language and framing of the question, show that a sizable majority of Americans do not believe the surge is making a major difference in making Iraq safer.

Despite sending nearly 30,000 new American troops into Iraq, voters still see a country divided by continuing violence and say by a margin of 60 to 36 percent that the U.S. is not making significant progress toward restoring civil order.  And they don’t believe more time will produce better results – 54 percent in the ABC/Post say the surge will not improve the security situation in Iraq over the next few months while 43 percent believe it will.

2. Americans do not trust the Bush administration or General Petraeus to deliver an objective analysis of progress made and next steps.

The CBS/Times and Gallup/USA Today polls both make it clear that Americans have much more confidence in military commanders, whether it be General Petraeus or the Joint Chiefs of Staff, than they do in President Bush or the Congress to conduct the war effectively and to advise on what to do next.  However, at the same time, the ABC/Post poll found that just 39 percent believe Pertaeus’ report will “honestly reflect the situation in Iraq” while a majority (53 percent) believes he will “try to make things look better than they really are.”  Similarly, Gallup/USA Today found an almost identical margin – 53 percent said Petraeus would offer “a biased report that reflects what the Bush administration wants the public to believe about Iraq while just 40 percent anticipated “an independent and objective report.”

And not surprisingly, the skepticism will be even greater when President Bush addresses the nation Thursday night.  When speaking on Iraq, 67 percent believe Bush makes things sound better than they really are while just 23 percent believe he offers an accurate description of events on the ground there.

3. Basic attitudes on Iraq are not changing – Americans believe it was a mistake that has not been worth the cost.

For years now, we have chronicled the growing number of Americans who now say we never should have gone into Iraq in the first place – a group that is now as large and as intense in its beliefs as ever.  In the CBS/Times survey, 62 percent call the current war in Iraq “a mistake,” and 54 percent say we should have just stayed out.  Weighing the costs and the benefits over more than four years of fighting, 59 percent say the removal of Saddam Hussein, as positive as that may have been, was not worth the cost.  And in the ABC/Post poll, 62 percent say the war was simply not worth fighting, including 51 percent who feel strongly on the measure.  Only 36 percent still say the war was worth fighting, and just 23 percent now feel strongly on that question.

4. Support for a gradual withdrawal and a firm deadline is as strong as ever and not dependent on measures of progress.

Public polls continue to show broad support for a decrease in the number of American troops currently in Iraq.  In the ABC/Post poll, 58 percent support a decrease in troop levels, compared to 27 percent who want to see current levels maintained and 12 percent who call for an increase.  The CBS/Times survey offers a distinction between a decrease and a full withdrawal, but the larger dynamic is still the same – the number supporting a decrease (35 percent) or removal of all troops (30 percent) outnumber those calling for the status quo (19 percent) or an increase (11 percent) by more than 2-to-1.

But of course, the question of where we go from here is much more complex than this.  A great deal of the debate has focused on the question of deadlines and whether the U.S. should set a timetable for withdrawal that forces the Iraqis to assume greater responsibility for their own security.  Although asked in different ways, all three new surveys found strong support for deadlines.

The CBS/Times poll includes an important exercise that shows how little attitudes on Iraq are likely to shift as a result of this week’s events.  They asked the withdrawal question in the context of two very different scenarios regarding the report of Gen. Petraeus.  If Petraeus, as expected, reports that the situation in Iraq is improving, 38 percent say the U.S. should increase or maintain current troop levels while 56 percent say we should decrease levels or remove all troops.  However, if Petraeus reports that the situation is getting worse, 43 percent support an increase or maintaining current levels while 47 percent support a decrease or removal of troops.  In either scenario, withdrawal remains the preferred option, but Petraeus’ optimism actually works against the Bush administration’s efforts to avoid any form of withdrawal.

It is important to note that the strong support for withdrawal is not unqualified.  Voters remain very concerned about the consequences of a rapid withdrawal that meets domestic political demands but ignores the security needs of the Iraqi people.  The Gallup/USA Today poll finds 2-in-3 Americans (67 percent) feel the U.S. “has an obligation to establish a reasonable level of stability and security in Iraq before withdrawing all of its troops.  And by a margin of nearly 2-to-1, those who support withdrawal say it must be a gradual withdrawal of troops rather than withdrawing troops as quickly as possible.

More than anything else, the intransigence of American opinion on the questions of withdrawal and deadlines may be based in frustration with the Iraqi government and its failures.  Only 34 percent say they have confidence in the Iraqi government to meet its commitments to help restore civil order, while 65 percent offer a vote of no confidence.  Even more (70 percent) say the Iraqi government is not doing all it “can realistically be expected to do in order to bring about stability in Iraq.”  And even if they do increase their efforts, 57 percent believe the current Iraqi government is simply incapable meeting the benchmarks that were supposed to dictate continued U.S. involvement.

5. Bottom line – the war in Iraq is not making us safer and is not integral to the larger war on terrorism.

The ABC/Post poll shows that less than 1-in-4 Americans (22 percent) believe the argument – currently being advanced by $15 million dollars in television advertising by Bush loyalists – that withdrawing from Iraq will increase the risk of a terrorist attack here in the U.S.  Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) believe the risk is the same regardless, while 11 percent believe remaining in Iraq puts us at greater risk.

The question is posed in many different ways, but the answer from the American public is always the same – the war in Iraq is not making us safer.  Furthermore, Americans reject the Bush administration’s contention that the war in Iraq is central to the larger effort to protect against terrorism.  Only 37 percent in the ABC/Post poll agree that the U.S. must win the war in Iraq in order for the broader war on terrorism to succeed, while 54 percent say the war on terror can still be a success.  A similar number in the CBS/Times poll (38 percent) see the war in Iraq as a major part of the war on terror, while 6-1n-10 say it is just a minor part (13 percent) or completely separate (47 percent) from the war on terror.  And when asked by Gallup/USA Today about the impact of the war in Iraq in keeping us safe from terrorism, 40 percent say it has made us safer while 49 percent believe it has actually made us less safe.

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