President Continues Iraq Opinion Offensive

As the Iraq war enters its fourth year, President Bush is trying to get Americans to look beyond the unrelenting violence and see another trend: progress. The president travels to Cleveland as part of a series of speeches on Iraq. Steve Inskeep talks to Cokie Roberts about the president's efforts to turn around public opinion on the war.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Just before the third anniversary of the Iraq War, President Bush acknowledged that many Americans wonder if the mission is worth it. Yesterday, Vice President Cheney offered this argument.

Vice President DICK CHENEY: There's a lot at stake here. It's not just about Iraq, it's not about just today's situation in Iraq. It's about where we're going to be 10 years from now in the Middle East, and whether or not there's going to be hope, and a development of governments that are responsive to the will of the people, that are not a threat to anyone, that are not safe havens for terror or manufacturers of weapons of mass destruction. That's our VISION and our view.

INSKEEP: The vice president spoke on CBS's Face the Nation. The president speaks today on the war as polls show public support dropping. And we're going this morning, as we do every Monday morning, to NPR News Analyst Cokie Roberts. Good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS, reporting:

Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How much trouble is the president in on this issue?

ROBERTS: Oh, a huge amount of trouble. His personal approval ratings are off by 25 points since he, the first weekdays after the invasion of Iraq. Approval of the war is off by about 30 points, depending on the polls you look at. And yesterday and today, you've seen a full-scale press on the part of the administration to try to turn that around. The president made a statement saying that the policies in place now are leading to victory. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had an op-ed in the Washington Post saying that to withdraw from Iraq now would be the equivalent of turning Germany back to Hitler in World War II.

Now there was a dissident voice, and that was of former Iraqi Prime Minister Allawi, saying that Iraq was already in the middle of a civil war. So today, you have current Prime Minister Al-Jaafari with an op-ed in the Washington Post, saying no, that the country is on the track to get things better. But it is a huge, huge problem for the president, when you're waging a war where there is not sufficient public support. It is the big lesson out of the Vietnam War, and one that they hoped to avoid, and they haven't been able to avoid it.

INSKEEP: Republicans in Congress have backed away from the president on other issues where there wasn't public support, what about this one?

ROBERTS: Well, this would be absolutely the last straw if the Republicans really backed away from the president on the subject of Iraq. You can always make a case on domestic issues, or on something like the Dubai Ports deal, but you have always had a few Republican critics, like Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who has presidential ambitions of his own.

But Nebraska is a state that was, I think, third in the country in terms of its support for the president in the 2004 election. And Hagel says that he was getting a lot of criticism from his constituents for being critical of the president's war policy, and that now that that criticism is dying down because what you have is so many people, particularly in states with small towns, where they, the three and four tours of duty in Iraq are making the towns very much question the war, particularly because people are dying.

I think Republicans in Congress are asking the question right now, what is their own self-preservation here? What works for them, in terms of the war in Iraq? And they haven't answered that question.

INSKEEP: Have Democrats figured out where they want to be on all of this?

ROBERTS: Democrats are enjoying the Republicans' miseries and Jack Rees, the Democratic Senator from Rhode Island, said to me yesterday, we've got a strong wind at our back, now all we have to do is get a sail up. Any sail, some sail, but they haven't really found that sail yet. They were interested to see how Senator Russ Feingold's call for censure worked with the blogosphere mainly, but also in polls because Democrats backed away from his call just dramatically, even Democrats like Nancy Pelosi of California just didn't, didn't want to have anything to do with it. But a Newsweek poll out today shows 42 percent of the people supporting censure, including 20 percent of Republicans. So Democrats are feeling pretty good about where they are in all of this, at the moment.

INSKEEP: Cokie, very briefly, can the administration keep prosecuting the war without any public support?

ROBERTS: There are no good choices here, Steve, and that's what they're dealing with right now.

INSKEEP: Okay, thanks very much. That's NPR News Analyst Cokie Roberts, and as Cokie mentioned, many of the soldiers and Marines in Iraq are now on their second or third tour of duty, and both service people and their families say it's taking a toll, as NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

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