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THE WORLD | SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

President May Have Boosted Support for War

His State of the Union address appears to have resonated with the public and in Congress.

January 30, 2003|Richard T. Cooper | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's State of the Union address, while not decisive, appeared Wednesday to have moved him closer to solidifying support on the home front for a possible war with Iraq.

Public opinion polls conducted after Tuesday night's speech showed measurable gains in support for the president. And in Congress, Bush won praise from some influential Democrats and previously nervous Republicans, as well as renewed pledges of support from longtime backers.

At the same time, some analysts cautioned that the gains could prove transitory.

"Certainly, it was the most articulate presentation of his case he's made," said Benjamin Page, a Northwestern University specialist in public opinion. "But it's likely to be a temporary bounce. People know in their gut that this could be jumping off a cliff. Nobody really knows what will happen" if U.S. forces invade Iraq.

At least for the moment, though, Bush seems to have recaptured the initiative in the struggle for popular and political support.

In part, the gains came from his announcement that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell would go to the United Nations next week and lay out new evidence that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime continues to pursue an illegal-weapons program and has links to terrorist groups.

The pledge, reiterated in a closed-door briefing for House members Wednesday, brought a palpable sigh of relief from lawmakers in both parties who have been uneasy about the administration's stated willingness to act against Iraq without broad support from allies.

"I was pleased to hear that Powell was going to the U.N. next week," Sen. Charles Hagel (R-Neb.) said. "That means we're going to stay in that track."

In addition, some specialists in presidential leadership said Bush helped himself by abandoning the tough but seemingly glib rhetoric of recent days about the U.N. weapons inspection process in Iraq -- remarks such as, "This looks like a rerun of a bad movie, and I'm not interested in watching it."

Instead, the president used the State of the Union to return to the grave, reasoned language most of his predecessors have relied on to call the nation to war.

"After 9/11, the rhetoric of frontier justice satisfied a deep need in the American public. Saying, 'We will hunt them down,' or, 'Wanted, dead or alive' -- it enacted a fantasy of uncomplicated, swift, and total retribution," said James Page of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., and author of a new book on presidential language and leadership.

"Now that the United States faces a more serious war, and potentially a great sacrifice of blood and treasure, the public craves a different type of rhetoric," he said. "So during the State of the Union, the frontier cowboy was transformed into the courtroom lawyer."

"Bush is starting to use language more like his predecessors," said James Hilty, a presidential scholar at Temple University in Philadelphia. "You can't go around talking about killing thousands of people in a casual manner. It's simply not a casual thing."

While instant polling does not always stand the test of time, an overnight survey by CNN/Gallup/USA Today showed the president added 20 percentage points to his approval rating for handling the Iraq crisis.

A Gallup poll before the State of the Union reported 47% of respondents said Bush had made a "convincing case" for his policy. After the speech, the poll found that figured jumped to 67%.

An overnight poll by ABC News reported a more modest increase of six percentage points from respondents who expressed confidence in Bush's handling of Iraq after hearing the State of the Union address.

On Capitol Hill, Rep. Jane Harman of Venice, senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Bush's speech and the upcoming Powell presentation at the U.N. would ease concern at home and abroad.

"There's a lot more information we could put out a la the [1962] Cuban missile crisis," Harman said. "We could make the case with facts and photos. I was pleased to see that Powell was beginning to be on this track."

She added that administration officials are "very focused now on persuading the world. That is an extremely important development. The cowboy rhetoric is gone, and we are now trying to make the case for action."

But Sens. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) introduced resolutions Wednesday that would place new hurdles in the way of the administration's use of force against Iraq.

Byrd's measure calls for the U.N. Security Council to authorize any invasion beforehand. Kennedy repeated his call for a new congressional debate before Bush could send U.S. troops into action.

Neither resolution is likely to pass the GOP-led Senate.

Boston University history professor Robert Dallek compared Bush's "cowboy talk" with President Johnson's offhand vow during the Vietnam War to "nail the coonskin to the wall."

"It was a kind of crude Texas expression," Dallek said, and Johnson "was seen as a crude, vulgar man who was kind of hustling the country into something it didn't really understand."

Similarly, he said, Bush's earlier tone gave "the country a bad image of this pushy, overbearing, crude America laying down the law to the unwashed masses out there."

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