“Right now, the White House is probably very worried about it because the sort of drip, drip of casualties in Iraq brings to mind memories of Vietnam,” said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, an expert on presidential elections at the Brookings Institution, a liberal Washington think tank.
While the most recent poll numbers indicate the president’s downward slide in approval ratings may have levelled off, nearly half the country’s electorate, 47%, would vote for a democratic candidate if the presidential election were held right now, according a Washington Post/ABC News poll published on 15 October. Only 54% said fighting the war in Iraq was worth it, down from 61% a month ago.
If Bush is unable to persuade other nations to send significant numbers of troops to help squash the resistance in the so-called Sunni triangle, his domestic political problems could get worse, said Dr Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland.
“Bush is bleeding on Iraq right now and an international agreement would definitely [stitch] things up,” Kull said.
“The campaign is more than a year away and that’s several lifetimes in American politics”
Kathryn Dunn Tenpas
The United Nations recently passed a unanimous resolution offering a more detailed outline on Iraq’s political future, but the measure provided nothing in the way of additional troops or money from other countries on the UN Security Council.
Pundits caution that it is far too early to predict what impact, if any, the situation in Iraq might have on Bush’s re-election prospects.
“The campaign is more than a year away and that’s several lifetimes in American politics,” Tenpas said.
However, the administration’s recent public relations counteroffensive on Iraq suggests a certain level of fear may be brewing within the White House.
Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, all delivered major speeches on Iraq last week intended to bolster public support for the cost of the occupation, in terms of both money and the loss of life.
US troops patrol residential areas
The administration also announced a change in the structure of the reconstruction effort, giving more decision-making power to the White House.
Finally, US diplomats pushed hard for the new UN resolution on Iraq, something they clearly hope will pave the way for more international assistance.
“I think the signs [of concern] are from the administration itself,” said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “I think they’re clearly worried. That’s why they took some steps with the UN and with their own policy procedures.”
Bush officials complain that mainstream media coverage of Iraq has been disproportionately negative up to this point, painting a gloom-and-doom picture of violent instability that overlooks the many improvements made to the Iraqi infrastructure.
However, Mann has said the American people are more concerned with the ongoing loss of US troops and the size of the administration’s $87 billion spending request for Iraq.
“The public will take its cue from casualties and cost and from resistance and from the international community,” he said.
Daily US losses in Iraq are a cause
Despite public scepticism, Bush has reason to feel optimistic. A USA Today/CNN/Gallop poll conducted this month put Bush’s job approval rating at 56%, up six points from last month.
While that number may be worrisome to the administration, it offers no reason to panic at such an early stage in the contest, said Karlyn Bowman, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank.
“I think clearly I would be anxious, but I would not be overly concerned at this point,” Bowman said, noting that Bush’s marks for leadership and his handling of the war on terrorism remain relatively high.
West Bank model
Still, if the number of US casualties in Iraq remains steady for the next several months, the comparisons to Vietnam could increase, though the analogy is far from perfect, said James Thurber, director of the Centre for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.
“It’s very different in terms of the number of people killed, but similar in terms of the low-grade fever that keeps getting worse and the patience is not getting better,” Thurber said.
”I think the analogy here is not Vietnam, but the West Bank in terms of the type of fighting and people getting killed”
Another more current event might provide a better context for looking at Iraq, he said.
“I think the analogy here is not Vietnam, but the West Bank in terms of the type of fighting and people getting killed,” he said.
There remain doubts as to how big a factor Iraq will be in the minds of American voters, who have a slew of domestic issues to ponder before picking a candidate, Kull said.
His organization conducted a poll asking likely voters if Bush’s handling of Iraq would affect whether or not they voted for him and the responses were split down the middle, meaning the issue could be a wash, he said.
“[Bush] is not suffering because of Iraq, but he’s no longer benefiting from it, and that turns attention to the domestic front where he’s not doing so well,” he said.
The domestic front means the economy, which might be on a permanent upswing, depending on which economist is doing the talking.
Federal revenues show modest signs of growth and the haemorrhaging of job losses appears to have stopped, but the unemployment rate remains stalled at 6.1%.
“The odds are that we’ll have a net loss of jobs in [Bush’s] first term in office and he’ll be pounded on that,” Mann said.
If the economy does make a full recovery and continues to grow stronger, heading into the final stretch of the campaign next year, “It’s going to be very tough to beat [Bush],” Thurber said.