President’s speech aimed more at placating Americans

The Columbus Dispatch – September 24, 2003

WASHINGTON — President Bush’s defiant speech to world leaders at the United Nations yesterday appeared to be designed more to satisfy Americans that the loss of life and the vast sums of money spent in Iraq will lead to a more-stable world and reduce the possibility of terrorist attacks.

Facing skepticism in the United Nations and growing doubts throughout the United States, Bush made it clear he has no regrets about using the military to smash the regime of Saddam Hussein.

With French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, both sharp critics, in the jammed General Assembly, Bush adopted the combative style he often uses in negotiating with congressional leaders — admit no wrong, show no weakness and save any difficult compromises for the last possible moment.

The president, whose job-approval rating in Ohio and across the country has tumbled since U.S. and British forces overthrew Saddam, dismissed criticism of his policy to launch pre-emptive attacks against rogue nations developing nuclear weapons.

In language that would satisfy any hawkish American conservative, Bush said, “Nations of the world must have the wisdom and the will to stop grave threats before they arrive.”

As for Iraq’s future, he argued that a democracy there would encourage other Arab states to modernize their political systems. A “transformed Middle East would benefit the entire world by undermining the ideologies that export violence to other lands,” he declared.

Bush spokesman Scott McClellan downplayed the drooping poll numbers, noting that it’s “not uncommon at this point in an administration” and that there are “going to be a lot of polls between now and November (2004).”

At a similar point in his presidency, Ronald Reagan trailed Democrats John Glenn and Walter Mondale in the polls; Reagan rebounded in 1984 to overwhelm Mondale in a general-election landslide.

Republicans were quick to hail Bush’s approach, with House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois challenging Democratic critics of the Iraqi invasion to say what their policy would have been to end Saddam’s brutal regime.

But Democrats say there are looming parallels to President George H.W. Bush, whose high approval rating after the 1991 Persian Gulf War evaporated because of a sluggish economy, leading to his 1992 loss to Democrat Bill Clinton.

“As we say down in good ol’ southern Ohio, the chickens are coming home to roost,” said Rep. Ted Strickland of Lisbon. “This president is reaping what he has sown . . . distortion, half-truths, exaggerations, and it’s all covered over with secrecy and the truth is coming out. A lot of people . . . are wondering why this president is so willing to throw so many of our national resources into Iraq when we’ve got big problems right here at home.”

A Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll released yesterday showed Bush with a 50 percent approval rating, the lowest of his presidency. He also was either narrowly losing to or barely beating five Democratic presidential candidates.

Newcomer Wesley Clark, the retired supreme commander of NATO, led Bush 49 percent to 46 percent, although that and the other four head-to-head results all fell within the poll’s margin of error of 4 percentage points.

The national poll mirrors a Dispatch survey earlier this month that found a 50 percent approval rating for Bush in the Columbus area, down 11 points since a similar poll in April. The survey was conducted by Saperstein Associates.

Ohio, especially the swing region of central Ohio, is considered a must-win for Bush in next year’s general election.

Meanwhile, the University of Cincinnati’s Ohio Poll, released yesterday, pegged Bush’s statewide approval rating at 55 percent, the lowest since he took office. Fifty-three percent approved of Bush’s handling of Iraq, down 29 points since April.