With his job approval rating polling between 41 and 47 percent — a figure that history suggests must be above 50 percent for a president to win reelection — President Bush faces a conundrum. To wit:
His popularity is inextricably linked to perceptions of how things are going in Iraq. Even as the economy gets better, Bush’s approval on economic issues has gone down. “If [people] feel bad about the situation in Iraq, then they feel bad about everything, and that affects their view on the economy,” Bush strategist Matthew Dowd explained to Byron York earlier this month. So improving the perception on Iraq is the key to the President’s reelection.
But perception on Iraq is necessarily affected by the tone of the news. All of the biases of the mainstream press corps — its shameless sensationalism, its shortsightedness, its Vietnam nostalgia — guarantee that bad news will lead and good news will be buried.
That’s why so much of last night’s address was dominated by the progress that has already been made in Iraq. But the conundrum is not yet solved.
Much has been written about President Bush’s oratorical shortcomings. As he is strongest when speaking before a friendly crowd, the U.S. Army War College was a good choice of venues. The President was engaged and determined, and connected with the audience on his applause lines. The broadcast networks, though, didn’t even bother to cover the speech — as they certainly would were this one of those drab speeches to a camera in the White House, or the kabuki-dance with hostile questioners at a press conference. Those Americans who prefer The Swan to cable news — and many swing voters fall into this category — will get their news of the speech filtered.
That’s why the content fell short. The President’s case that we must win, and in fact are winning, was immediately dismissed as nothing new — CNN’s White House correspondent John King was harping on the “no news” point before the President was even done shaking hands from the stage. (Because of course the President’s points that “twelve government ministries are currently under the direct control of Iraqis,” or that “many of Iraq’s cities and towns now have elected town councils and city governments” are just hackneyed points that no one could possibly have missed.)
The President did make one piece of news, announcing the planned replacement and demolition of Abu Ghraib prison. King dismissed it, calling it merely symbolic, but it is in the fifth paragraph of the New York Times write-up, suggesting that concocting news-events — even if they are merely symbolic — might be quite valuable.
It would be a good start to couple the President’s forthcoming speeches — and there must be more speeches, for this sort of rallying is part of the job of a war president — with major announcements, perhaps on the identities of members of interim government or local elections in regions where the security situation allows it. Despite some serious setbacks, the situation in Iraq is not so dire that the President cannot take control of the narrative that is now controlled by reporters who are almost rooting for failure (and in at least a few cases, strike the “almost”). To win back the confidence of the electorate, he must do so.