Phantom mandate


WASHINGTON - One of the first things President Bush did upon re-election was claim a mandate for staying the course in Iraq, saying he intended to spend some of the political capital he earned Nov. 2. But a poll for ABC News and The Washington Post shows that 49 percent of 1,004 randomly selected Americans surveyed last week disapprove of the job he is doing as president, while 48 percent approve.

That's not too surprising, considering the closeness of the election result. But, astonishingly, by much wider margins they also disapprove of the situation in Iraq (57-42), think the war wasn't worth fighting (56-42), say the casualty rate is unacceptable (70-27) and don't believe the planned Iraqi elections will be honest (54-36).

In apparent contradiction, 53 percent said they approved of the way Mr. Bush was handling the campaign against terrorism, compared with 43 percent who disapproved. And while they doubted the honesty of the coming Iraqi elections, 60 percent said they should be held as scheduled, while 34 percent said they should be postponed.

As we learned from the Election Day exit polls, much depends on how the questions are posed. The most widely circulated exit poll, for example, listed "moral values" as one choice in assessing what issue most determined how voters cast their ballots. It ran well ahead of both the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism, listed as two separate choices.

The result was a spasm of analyses in the media declaring that the votes of avid churchgoers gave Mr. Bush his margin of victory. Had Iraq and terrorism been linked as one determinant of the vote, however, the war would have surpassed "moral values" in the polls.

There's irony in looking at the Iraq war now as part of the war on terrorism, since Mr. Bush, in invading Iraq last year, sought to link Saddam Hussein to the war on terrorism with no convincing evidence to support the allegation. But the war in Iraq has now irrefutably become a centerpiece of the fight against terrorism, just as Iraq has become a magnet for anti-American insurgents who have joined native Iraqi terrorists.

Nevertheless, according to the ABC News/Post poll, voters do seem to separate the two wars in strongly disapproving of Mr. Bush's handling of Iraq but just as strongly approving his conduct of the war on terrorism. So this poll obviously is limited in what it can tell us about the public attitude toward the president's stewardship as commander in chief.

What it does say is that Mr. Bush will embark on his second term next month with a very shaky mandate for staying the course in Iraq, especially with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in charge. For all of Mr. Bush's laudatory comments about Mr. Rumsfeld at his news conference this week, 52 percent of voters surveyed said the president should get rid of his Pentagon chief, compared with only 35 percent who approved of the job Mr. Rumsfeld has been doing.

The year's end has been particularly troublesome for Mr. Rumsfeld, with issues that have kept him in a defensive crouch that seems alien to his usually confident, even abrasive manner. New reports have surfaced of further abuses to Iraqi detainees at Guantanamo, Cuba. And Mr. Bush was obliged to defend the secretary for his having used a mechanical device to sign letters of condolence to families of soldiers killed in Iraq, rather than signing them by hand.

Finally, Mr. Bush's reassurances that progress is being made in bringing stability to Iraq for its scheduled Jan. 30 elections are hollow. They came a day before the single worst attack on an American base since the start of the war, killing at least 22 people, including 13 U.S. troops, in Mosul.

As Christmas approaches, the prospect for peace on Earth and good will toward men is an especially appropriate prayer, but only a prayer right now.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.

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