President Bush hits rough patch

Posted: Sunday, July 20, 2003

WASHINGTON Bad news is building for President Bush: Americans are dying in Iraq at the rate of nearly one a day, deficits are skyrocketing, Bush's poll numbers are falling and the administration is grappling with embarrassing prewar claims about Iraqi arms.

Perhaps one of the best things going for him is that it's all happening while the Democrats are in relative disarray.

Postwar difficulties and Bush's debunked State of the Union claim that Iraq tried to buy nuclear-weapons material in Africa were seized on Democratic presidential contenders and congressional party leaders alike. It was the first major opening, perhaps since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, to directly challenge the president on national security policy.

''But they're not singing with one voice,'' said James Thurber of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. ''They're all saying something different. They don't have a clear strategy, theme and message.''

In a week of setbacks in Iraq, a pro-American mayor was killed and a U.S. military transport plane was fired on by a surface-to-air missile. And India backed out of a pledge to send up to 17,000 troops to join a stabilization force in Iraq.

France and Germany also declined. But those snubs were expected. The Indian decision was the one that hurt and could increase costs to the United States, already experiencing a ''burn rate'' of American money that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put at almost $1 billion a week.

Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota complained of being in a ''legislative Never-Never land'' as the Senate debated a record $369-billion defense spending bill that failed to reflect those war costs. And Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., asserted that U.S. troops in Iraq ''are now serving as police officers in a shooting gallery.''

On the home front, the White House estimated that the federal budget deficit, in surplus when Bush took office, will rise to $455 billion this year and $475 billion next.

War costs, a continued weak economy and the Bush tax cuts were blamed for the hemorrhage of red ink.

One-time ally Alan Greenspan didn't help. The Federal Reserve chair warned Congress that a rising federal deficit could undercut prospects for recovery.

Meanwhile, unemployment was at a nine-year high rate of 6.4 percent, with five consecutive months of job losses.

Bush has seen his popularity slip sharply amid increasing public concerns over continued casualties and whether the war was worth fighting.

His job approval has dipped from the mid-70s during the Iraq war. It was as low as 55 percent in one poll taken in mid-July, but about 60 percent in several others.

The public by a large majority about three-fourths believes the U.S. military should stay in Iraq and finish the job. But intensifying Iraqi guerrilla attacks and questions about the way the war was sold appear to be combining to pull down public support.

Eight in 10 said in an ABC-Washington Post poll that they're concerned that the United States will get bogged down in a long and costly peacekeeping mission in Iraq.

Bush could not even find much solace in a visit from staunch war ally Tony Blair. The British prime minister has his own political problems over his pre-war statements on Iraqi weapons. And U.S. efforts to tie Bush's Iraq-Africa comments to British intelligence reports has soured some of the goodwill between the two nations.

Bush's rough patch on Iraq and on the economy are not a good political omen for Republicans.

Still, the same polls do reflect residual good will toward the president.

''There are still a lot of people out there who still like the president and want to give him the benefit of the doubt. I don't think Democrats ought to expect that overnight George Bush will turn from popular to unpopular,'' said Stuart Rothenberg, a political analyst and newsletter publisher.

As the administration scrambled to defend itself against charges it misled the public on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, it sought supportive documentation from an unlikely quarter the Clinton administration and Democratic senators like John Kerry of Massachusetts and Carl Levin of Michigan who are among Bush's sharpest war critics.

White House spokesperson Scott McClellan cited correspondence and other material dating to 1998 in which the Democratic administration and lawmakers repeated the widely held view that Saddam had such weapons and was prepared to use them.

''There was never any discussion about whether or not Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction or a weapons of mass destruction program until recently,'' McClellan said.

Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.

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