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Bush's PR push on Iraq seen as a tough sell
San Francisco Chronicle


March 27, 2006

President Bush is trying to sell the American people on the idea that they should stick with his policy in Iraq, but experts on war and public opinion doubt he will meet with much success.

Short of significant progress in Iraq that will sharply reduce American casualties and allow large numbers of troops to come home, the president's latest round of speeches and news conferences to reverse souring public opinion about the war faces a near-insurmountable burden, these nonpartisan analysts said.

At best, they said, the president, who has seen his popularity and support for the 3-year-old war skid steadily, can produce a temporary upward blip by using the presidential bully pulpit.




"It's quite unlikely" that Bush's recent public relations offensive will make a dent in the public's negative view of how the war is going, said Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University who is a former Army colonel.

"My view of his problem is that the administration has repeatedly announced that the war had reached a turning point ... and each time, that turning point didn't count. What he needs now is to be able to identify a real turning point in Iraq," Bacevich said.

Bush has no choice but to speak out, even if his message is repetitive and unconvincing to a large bloc of Americans, Bacevich added. "Iraq has become the reason for the existence of this presidency. He has no alternative but to try to change public opinion."

While the president in his second term at the White House can't seek re-election in 2008, his party nervously faces congressional elections this November. Republican strategists hope that by speaking out, the president can shore up the party's base, stop the ever-falling poll numbers and perhaps help GOP candidates in close races this fall.

Bush, his popularity also skidding because of Hurricane Katrina and other factors, undertook his first rhetorical offensive last autumn, when an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in November put the percentage of the public who approved of his handling of the war at 32 percent. In December, that climbed to 36 percent, and it went to 39 percent in January before falling again to 35 percent this month.

University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said the slight rise last year shows that a presidential focus on an issue can make a temporary dent in public opinion.

"He continues to do it because when he gives a series of high-profile speeches, his numbers go up, but as soon as he shifts focus, the numbers return to a lower level," Sabato said.

"And that's his problem, in part. The president cannot address the same topic every day. Other issues intrude," he added.

In his latest foray to persuade the country to remain behind him on the war, Bush has made two speeches this week and has held an hourlong White House news conference. Aides say there will be at least one more speech next week. He faced some tough questions at this week's appearances - from members of the public and from reporters.

Support for Bush's effort came this week from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a key architect of the war.

"I've read that the polls are down," he said at a Pentagon press conference. "Polls go up and down. If every time a poll goes up and people change their position or throw in the towel, we wouldn't have a country. ... You have to persevere."

Paul Brewer, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, recently co-authored a paper on how Americans hold presidents accountable in wartime. He says there are two models: the "decision-maker" president and the "managerial" model.

Brewer said more Americans view Bush in the "decision-maker" mold because of his administration's decision three years ago to launch a pre-emptive war to remove Saddam Hussein from power and go after what were thought to be Iraq's biological and chemical weapons and abort Saddam's intention to develop nuclear weapons.

"It's the 'decision-maker' facts that hurt Bush because people don't see that the reasons for the war were true," Brewer said. Those people haven't been shaken from that view despite the president's speeches.

"Based on our findings, I don't think his current offensive will do much. He tried this last fall, and he got a bump of a few points but it went away," Brewer said.

As the war has dragged on, the war's critics have become emboldened to speak out while its defenders have grown quiet. This has an impact on public opinion, Brewer said. "It's a steady drip of the critics getting louder and defenders getting quieter," he added.

Brewer said that the news from Iraq - American casualties, Iraqi politicians' failure to form a national government, continued insurgent attacks - have a "noticeable impact on those concerned with whether the war is going well but not on those people who think about the wisdom of going to war" in the first place.


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