What the $87 Billion Speech Cost Bush
Polls May Indicate That TV Address Eroded President's Support on Iraq
By Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 20, 2003; Page A02
President Bush has often used major speeches to bolster his standing with the public, but pollsters and political analysts have concluded that his recent prime-time address on Iraq may have had the opposite effect -- crystallizing doubts about his postwar plans and fueling worries about the cost.
A parade of polls taken since the Sept. 7 speech has found notable erosion in public approval for Bush's handling of Iraq, with a minority of Americans supporting the $87 billion budget for reconstruction and the war on terrorism that he unveiled.
"If Bush and his advisers had been looking to this speech to rally American support for the president and for the war in Iraq, it failed," said Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup poll. He said Bush's speech may have cost him more support than it gained, "because it reminded the public both of the problems in Iraq and the cost."
Since the speech from the Cabinet Room, headlines on poll after poll have proved unnerving for many Republicans and encouraging for Democrats. "Bush Iraq Rating at New Low," said a CBS News poll taken Sept. 15 and Sept. 16. "Americans Split on Bush Request for $87 Billion," said a Fox News poll taken Sept. 9 and Sept. 10. A Gallup poll taken Sept 8 to 10 pointed to "increasingly negative perceptions about the situation in Iraq" and found the balance between Bush's approval and disapproval ratings to be "the most negative of the administration."
A Washington Post-ABC News poll taken from Sept. 10 to Sept. 13 found that 55 percent of those surveyed said the Bush administration does not have a clear plan for the situation in Iraq, and 85 percent said they were concerned the United States will get bogged down in a long and costly peacekeeping mission.
Those results were disappointing to supporters who had watched Bush galvanize public opinion with his speech on Iraq at the United Nations on Sept. 12, 2002, stanching accounts of drift and infighting in his administration. Other addresses that gave Bush a lift included his address to Congress nine days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and his speech to the nation two nights before the Iraq war began last March.
Bush acknowledged this week that he was having trouble getting his message out. He told a roundtable of reporters from the Oregonian of Portland and other newspapers in swing states that he needs "to continue to explain to the American people why it's important we succeed in Iraq."
"I know we've got a construction plan, and we'll continue to explain it," Bush said. "Sometimes it's hard to get through the filter. That's why I gave the address from this room next door the other night, so I could explain directly to the American people what's important. And I will continue to make the case."
Bush, whose aides say he eschews the nitty-gritty of politics, quibbled with the wording in one poll when he was asked about two polls that showed a majority of Americans opposed his $87 billion request to Congress. "If you look at the question, it's kind of a strange question," he said, in what sources called a reference to a question that told respondents how much spending Congress had already approved.
Senior officials at Bush's campaign said the declines in polls were no cause for alarm because they were not driven by the speech but instead were part of a natural decline from historic levels that Bush aides have long predicted.
A campaign official also pointed to a question in the Post-ABC News poll that showed the percentage of respondents who thought the war with Iraq was worth fighting had risen from 54 percent in a poll ending the day of the speech to 61 percent afterward.
White House officials point out that the address had a smaller audience than some other presidential speeches. Nielsen Media Research said the Sept. 7 address was seen by about 31.7 million viewers, compared with 62 million for this year's State of the Union address, 55.8 million for his news conference on March 6 and 73.3 million for his ultimatum to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
"We didn't put all our hopes into one speech," White House communications director Dan Bartlett said. "This is going to be a sustained commitment by the administration and the president to educate the public about the stakes in the war and why we are committed to prevailing."
A wide range of Republicans close to the White House said they do not blame the speech for Bush's poll problems, and said they are not panicked about how he will fare in the 2004 election. "The speech had limited objectives," one official said. "The wolves were out, and the speech sucked some of the wind out of that."
But there was widespread agreement among these Republicans that the speech did little if anything to help steady his standing, which had been hurt by a stream of bad news from Iraq and disclosures about the administration's handling of prewar intelligence.
Several of these Republicans complained about the decision to have Bush stand and read from a TelePrompTer instead of showing him seated and speaking more conversationally.
"Can you find anybody on Capitol Hill who thinks, 'Boy, that really gave us momentum?' " one presidential adviser asked. "The setting was a failure. The linguistics were bad. The language was off. It wasn't typical Bush language, and he should have been in front of a group. He isn't at his best discussing the appropriations process."
George C. Edwards III, a Texas A&M political scientist whose book, "On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit," is being published this month, said he studied presidential speeches back to 1981 and found that they rarely produce a statistically significant change in approval ratings. But Edwards said Bush may have hurt his credibility by not acknowledging "that we didn't have a very good plan, and that we've had more setbacks than we anticipated."
"Facing up to that, and then saying we really need to be persistent, would have been more credible, given all the things that are going on and that people are aware of," Edwards said.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company