Bush approval rating suffers as war concerns grow

The Columbus Dispatch – September 7, 2003

Things are going badly in Iraq and the Bush administration has no clear plan for handling the situation, Columbus-area residents say in a new poll for The Dispatch marking the two-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack.

Although Bush gets high marks for honesty and handling the war on terrorism, respondents said he exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq, and his approval rating has shrunk to 50 percent — down 11 percentage points since a similar poll in April, two weeks after the war began.

And 14 months before the president faces the voters, poll participants — by a margin of 7 percentage points — said he doesn’t deserve re-election, according to the survey by Saperstein Associates.

One of them is Ida Taylor of West Jefferson, who initially supported the war in Iraq but now doesn’t like what she sees.

“I think it’s going very badly. We go in to help, and the people turn on us,” said the disabled 61-year-old mother of three.

“We’ve lost more men since (Bush) declared the war over. . . . If we are going to continue to be there, other nations should step in and take their turn.”

Dina Meier, 39, a flight attendant from the Northwest Side, has long been lukewarm in her support for the war.

“I think something had to be done, but there was no clear long-term plan of what we were going to do when we went in. And here we are. Now what?” asked Meier, mother of a 2-year-old daughter.

Felicia Jones, an East Side resident, expressed skepticism about the administration’s motives.

Bush “just gave us enough to hold us on for a minute. He didn’t give us all the details. He exaggerated. We don’t know what actually happened over there,” said Jones, 31, a shipping clerk for an air-cargo carrier.

“We’re fighting a war that has nothing to do with us. Our people are getting killed. It’s a waste of the United States’ money and innocent lives.”

Still, even with the misgivings about the almost daily reports of dead and wounded U.S. soldiers, a bare majority of those taking part in the poll said the struggle in Iraq is worth the cost financially and in human lives.

Shirley Carius, 74, of Canal Winchester, backs Bush’s decision to launch a pre-emptive strike.

“After they found the bodies and how the people were being treated, I just think that he was right,” the retired church secretary said.

“I think he told us what he knew or what he could tell us,” Carius said of Bush’s reasoning for going to war. “There’s things sometimes we don’t need to know.”

Rick Essex, who’s leaving his Worthington home today for a job in Madison, Wis., doesn’t buy criticism that Bush stretched the truth about Saddam Hussein’s arsenal.

“There were weapons of mass destruction. Come on, he’s already used them,” said the 49-year-old network engineer. “It may take a few years, but sooner or later they’re going to turn up.”

The Iraqi torture chambers, as well as the rapes and murders by top Iraqi officials, gave the United States a legitimate reason to invade, Essex said.

“That to me is sufficient justification to do something. How many of his own people did he murder?”

A large percentage of the public is ready to accept hundreds — even thousands — more American casualties, the poll indicates. However, those percentages have slipped in the weeks since early May, when Bush declared the major fighting over. The death toll at the end of last week was fewer than 300.

“There’s going to be some casualties. You’re dealing with people willing to kill themselves to kill us,” said John Mentzer of the North Side, a 40-year-old maintenance supervisor for an apartment complex.

“Obviously it’d be nice if things were going better, but when you put it in perspective, how many people have lost their lives in Columbus over the past year?”

Martin D. Saperstein, president of Saperstein Associates, the Columbus firm that conducted the poll for The Dispatch, said central Ohioans are sending mixed messages.

“The survey reveals that many people are less sanguine about U.S. prospects in Iraq, less enamored of President Bush, extremely concerned about the economy here at home. . . . Some also believe that the president exaggerated the truth when he took us to war.

“On the flip side, however, our respondents also tell us that President Bush is trustworthy, that he’s prosecuting the war on terror credibly, that Saddam Hussein was a threat who did have weapons of mass destruction, and that the price we’re paying in Iraq, in both lives and money, may well be worth it.

“In short, our respondents are growing restless with how the events in Iraq are unfolding and with the president. But they also believe that the world is a dangerous place — that’s it’s not ‘the economy, stupid,’ only.”

Still, like many respondents contacted by The Dispatch for follow-up interviews, both Taylor and Meier cited economic factors rather than Iraq as the main reason for their displeasure with Bush.

“Our economy has gone downhill so fast since he took office,” Taylor said. “I blame him in a great many ways, yes. We had a good economy before he got into office.”

Meier said she’d like to see Bush resolve the conflict with Iraq so U.S. leaders can focus on the ailing U.S. economy.

“It hasn’t bounced back,” she said. “Since 9/11 it’s been ‘hold on to any job you can.’ I’d like to think more about how we’re going to send our child to college than how we’re going to pay the mortgage.”

Despite the lack of solid proof uncovered by U.S. troops since the March invasion, the overwhelming majority believes that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction before the attack and provided financial support and other resources to al-Qaida, the terrorist group blamed for the attack on New York City and the Pentagon.

Reflecting a misconception uncovered in several national polls, about a quarter of those polled in the Columbus area think the United States already has found weapons of mass destruction — usually regarded as nuclear, chemical or biological devices that can kill large numbers of people.

The telephone poll of 301 randomly selected adults in Columbus phone exchanges — an area that generally includes Franklin County and slivers of neighboring counties — was conducted Tuesday through Thursday. The margin of sampling error is 5.7 percentage points; as in any poll, other sources of error are possible.

The totals were weighted slightly because the demographics of those polled did not quite match those of the most recent U.S. Census data for the area.