Bush numbers sink ever lower

The latest ABC News-Washington Post poll maps the President's falling numbers, which are apparently caused by skyrocketing gas prices rather than a groundswell of anger at the war: Bush's job approval rating now stands at 45 percent, which is down seven points since January is the lowest ever recorded him. Today, fifty-three percent disapprove of the job Bush is doing.

Iraq does feature in the mix, according to the Post, but more as a sign of the White House's inability to lead. Here is a great quote that sums up the national mood:

"I supported him last year," said Gina Coleman, 29, a homemaker living in Camden County, N.J. "I wouldn't vote for him again. It's gas prices, the war -- just the way he has been handling things. The rise in gas is something that has been happening for a long time, and the prices are getting worse. This makes me feel more negative about him, definitely." [LINK]
And more good news: Americans are pretty mad at the Republican-controlled Congress, which now has a paltry 37 percent job approval rating, the lowest in nearly eight years. Delightful stuff guaranteed to warm the cockles of any Democrat's heart, except ... the American public seems to have cottoned on to the fact that many of them are do-nothing blowhards:
Slightly more than half of those surveyed expressed dissatisfaction with congressional Democrats for not opposing Bush more aggressively. Self-identified Democrats were particularly impatient. More than three in four said congressional Democrats have not gone far enough to oppose Bush on Iraq or on administration policies in general.
Independents were similarly dissatisfied with Democratic leaders for not challenging the president over the war and other issues, with six in 10 saying Democrats have been too meek.
While the Post analysis doesn't make the connection, there is a clear cause-and-effect relationship between the unwillingness of the Dems to function as a real opposition party and the confusion reflected in the Iraq numbers. It is also connected to a real weakness in the antiwar movement that I'll get to shortly.

First the numbers. Even though 57 percent disapprove of Bush's performance on Iraq, and 53 percent believe that the war was not worth it, these numbers do not translate into support for immediate withdrawal:
A majority (54 percent) continued to say the United States should keep military forces in Iraq until civil order is restored there; 44 percent said U.S. forces should be withdrawn. Six in 10 opposed announcing a timetable for withdrawal. Only about one in eight -- 13 percent -- said U.S. forces should be withdrawn immediately.
So what's going on? Unlike the Washington Post, I don't think that these numbers indicate a lack of antiwar sentiment. Nor am I going to dismiss them -- as some progressives might -- as indicative of "brainwashing" of the American public by the media and the Bush administration. I think it reveals a deep-seated anxiety about what will happen to Iraq if the United States just ups and leaves. Many Americans wants to bring the troops home -- and sooner the better -- but they don't want to create another Afghanistan run by a Taliban-type government. Not after 9/11 which has clearly sunk into the popular psyche as a warning against complacency. Unlike the past, Americans are not going to simply shrug off the prospect of a country tail-spinning into extremist-fueled chaos because today they believe it may lead to another 9/11. Now you may disagree with that line of reasoning, but it's the way things are -- and that mindset is not going to simply go away.

So news of the insurgency evokes two opposing reactions among the American public: fear of staying put and the fear of what these same terrorists will do if we get the hell out. The Bush White House has been exploiting the latter, while the antiwar movement has been trying to appeal to the former.

Now this may make some of my readers very angry, but I'm going to say it any way. In some ways, the antiwar movement has been acting a little bit like John Kerry. We've been content to rely on the deteriorating situation in Iraq to make the case for withdrawal for us. The reasoning is that as long as the costs of staying put keep escalating -- and we can keep hammering home a message that underlines the costs -- it's only a matter of time before the American public embraces the inevitable. Like Kerry was the anti-Bush candidate, we're literally the anti-Iraq war movement. We have not offered any kind of alternative policy that will offer Americans what they want: a strategy to get out of a no-win war that addresses their deep-seated fears about the aftermath.

"Bring the troops home" is a political position -- a thumbs down on an existing policy -- not an alternative foreign policy. Yes, traditionally the job of articulating a policy agenda has been the domain of politicians not activists. And yes, people like Russ Feingold are moving in that direction. But the antiwar movement has to get into the act either by 1) offering an alternative plan of its own, or more likely 2) creating an effective grassroots plan to put pressure on key Democrats to do the same. Americans are desperately looking for a real alternative to Bush's "stay the course" policy. For better or worse, it's the antiwar movement's job to provide it.

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