Turning the corner

Posted: Dec 15, 2005 12:05 AM

I'm sure it's a coincidence, but suddenly I'm seeing a President George W. Bush who is acting in ways this columnist and others have been wanting to see for what seems like ages. I think his newfound efforts will prove politically fruitful.

 For too long the president has appeared out of touch with the public in his attempts to defend the Iraq war. He has stumbled repeatedly in trying to answer nagging issues about flawed intelligence, and whether the believed existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was or was not the sole reason for removing Saddam Hussein from power.

 In a series of speeches this week, Bush departed from his prior line of rhetoric, and even his prior delivery style.  Following one speech on Iraq, the president took everyone aback by fielding questions from the audience.

 It was a deft public relations move. It reminded us that this was the same George W. Bush who bounced back from a poor debate against John Kerry in the presidential campaign to equal or better Kerry in the debate that followed.

 The president is demonstrating the brand of confidence needed to let the public know that he is his own man and, even more important, that he is a capable leader in a tumultuous time.

 Later in the week, Bush got even smarter. He admitted openly that yes, some of the intelligence that he and other leaders relied on to evaluate the need to invade Iraq turned out to be unreliable.

 In being so honest, instead of offering his customary stonewalling defense of the decision-making process, the president gained desperately needed credibility for the more important point he made next. Namely, that Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who had repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to attack both his own countrymen and other nations. Bush emphasized that Hussein was a ticking time bomb in a volatile region.

 For some time I have noted my belief that Bush's approval ratings have probably bottomed out. I have written that by overplaying their political hand, Democrats would likely set the stage for a rally of public approval for the president. I'm now more convinced than ever that this is the case.

 Who knows? Maybe the president did take a few helpful hints from his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. As I wrote in this column last week, Gov. Bush enjoys huge popularity in his state, and his brother in the White House might do well to mimic some of Jeb's ways of doing things.

 However that may or may not be, George Bush's turnaround looks to be gaining some momentum.

 That may even apply to Iraq. Consider a national survey released this week. It showed that more and more Americans are now coming to believe that the efforts to bring democratic government to Iraq may be starting to work.

 Iraqis are expected to turn out in huge numbers for another election – even some of Hussein's sullen Sunni allies.

 Factor in, too, that Bush's prime motivation for war was that Hussein was too dangerous and unpredictable to allow him to stay in power. That point is hard to refute.

 All this is a recipe for a political turnaround for the embattled president, slow though that turnaround may be.

 Unsurprisingly, the same pollster that asked the question about democracy in Iraq also asked Americans if they felt as though progress was being made to reduce casualties among Iraqi civilians. That answer was less favorable, of course.

 The polling firm in question will remain nameless here. It's fair to say that it is billed as a non-profit research center with no political agenda. But it's equally fair to say that it is seen by those who closely follow public opinion as being a pollster that asks questions and releases data that often cast conservatives and Republicans in a less than favorable light.

 Look at it this way. If skepticism about a reduction in Iraqi casualties is the most negative thing this pollster can reveal, there must be the makings of a significant shift in the views of Americans about the war. Many people may feel less pained by the conflict, even if they still don't support it.

 It's important to keep in mind that much of the deliberate killing and injuring of Iraqis isn't coming from their fellow citizens, as would happen in a civil war. Instead, the authors of this carnage are mostly a coalition of various anti-American and anti-West terrorists and their sympathizers. By voting, if not by saying so publicly, Iraqis in huge numbers are supporting the U.S. effort in their country.

 Note, too, that the poll in question didn't delve into the issues of reduced casualties of American troops, or of transitioning governance of Iraq from coalition to Iraqi hands.

 The public is slowly coming to realize that Iraq may not be a desert Vietnam after all.

 Don't get me wrong. This White House still has far to go before it will be able to claim the widespread support of the American people. For that to happen, the White House must produce a domestic agenda that can turn heads.

 Still, the biggest monkey on the Bush team's back has been Iraq. And just this week, the president went a long way toward setting the stage for a public opinion turnaround.