WASHINGTON -- What a difference a month can make in the political life of a president and this nation. After nearly a year of precipitous decline in the polls on virtually every issue, President Bush's job approval numbers are turning around on just about everything -- from the war in Iraq to the economy.
The end-of-the-year surge in Bush's numbers comes at a time when Americans are feeling much more confident about the economy and about the prospects for progress in Iraq, including the likelihood of some phased troop withdrawals early next year.
But these numbers didn't happen by themselves. They are the result of an intense one-month counteroffensive by Bush to make a stronger, more persuasive case of the rightness of our cause in Iraq and the importance of fighting terrorism on its home base, followed by a successful high voter turnout Iraqi election that revealed a far more united country than pessimists predicted.
The sharp and rapid upsurge in Bush's numbers is astonishing and bears repeating, particularly on Iraq. They show that Bush still has a way to go yet to push his approval polls back into stronger majority status, but on key questions, they show that he has overcome his Democratic critics and months of overwhelmingly negative news reports on the war.
For example, last week's Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 60 percent of Americans now say the United States is making progress toward restoring security and civil order in Iraq, up from 44 percent last month.
When asked if the United States is making significant progress in establishing a democratic government in Iraq, a hefty 65 percent say we are -- up from 47 percent.
A majority of Americans (52 percent) still do not believe the war in Iraq was worth fighting, but those who think it was shot up from 39 percent last month to 46 percent today.
Bush's strongest approval number -- his handling of the war against terrorism -- stands at 56 percent, up from 48 percent. But the poll says as much about the weakness of the Democrats' latest antiwar, pullout-now posture as it does about Bush's growing strength on the way he is handling things over there.
For about a month now, Democratic leaders have pushed the idea of setting a timetable for withdrawal -- a position Bush rejects as defeatism and surrender just when the United States is on the brink of establishing a democratic, pro-Western nation in midst of the Middle East's terrorist breeding grounds.
But the Post-ABC poll of 1,000 Americans, conducted between Dec. 15 and 18, reveals a solid 60 percent majority backs the president on his opposition to setting a date for the withdrawal of U.S. forces there.
As for Democratic threats that they will run and win on the withdrawal issue in next year's elections, the poll showed that Americans were more likely to vote for a congressional candidate who rejected timetables than one who supported them.
Clearly, this month's elections, in which the Sunnis minority participated in large numbers, has boosted American confidence that political success on the ground brings us closer to a phase-down of U.S. forces in Iraq. Nearly three out of four Americans (71 percent) said the elections will hasten the time when our troops can begin coming home.
On the economy, too, Bush finally seems to be convincing people that it is much better than his critics say it is.
Last month, only 36 percent of Americans approved of Bush's handling of the economy. Now nearly half (47 percent) approve of the economy's direction, though 52 percent still aren't convinced.
Bush is talking up his accomplishments on the economy more, but in the past month several things have happened on the economic front that has boosted consumer confidence. Gas prices are down from their $3-plus highs earlier this year, the year-end rally in the financial markets has boosted 401(k)s and other investment plans for millions of baby boomers nearing retirement, and national economic growth levels remain robust going into 2006.
However, despite the improvement in most of Bush's numbers, he isn't out of the woods yet. His overall job approval rating shot up from a low of 39 percent in early November to 47 percent, yet 52 percent still disapprove of the job he's doing overall.
But a 10 point leap in his approval rating on Iraq and an 11 point jump on the economy shows that he has stopped the free-fall and is making his way back toward majority approval just as he and his party enters a critical election period.
Democrats say they expect to make Iraq the central issue in 2006, but if they do, what is their party's alternative plan there? Last week's poll asked that question and 74 percent said the Democrats in Congress don't have one.