Labeling them un-American and a stain on our collective honor, President Bush expressed outrage over atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib and promised swift action against the perpetrators. Then he jumped on a bus as if to escape it all.
But even as his public support lags and Congress calls for a more meaningful response, Bush can’t do more than offer feeble rhetoric and punish seven lower-class soldiers already implicated in this torture and humiliation. To do otherwise would require that he admit to his administration’s grand incompetencies and the dark moral climate they created after 9/11 by characterizing the world as a struggle between good and evil. A struggle, it seems, a majority of Americans no longer believe in.
Unrelenting scandals and continued bad news from Iraq have even shaken the faith of the converted. Public opposition to the war is at an all-time high, while support for Bush’s broader war on terrorism is at an all-time low. Deepening the White House’s public relations crisis is a growing sense that the administration line can no longer be trusted.
A Newsweek poll from mid-May found that only 35 percent of Americans support Bush’s handling of the war, and a growing number, 54 percent, say they are not at all confident or not too confident (27 percent in each category) that the United States can establish a stable government in Iraq. Nearly half of those surveyed dispute White House claims that abuse of Iraqi detainees begins and ends with soldiers on the ground.
But it’s not just Bush’s handling of events abroad that have voters reeling. Support for his stewardship of the nation’s economy also slumped to an all-time low in May, and his overall approval rating, according to a May Gallup Poll, remains below 50 percent. This poses historical problems for the White House. In its decades of surveying public opinion, Gallup found that no president since Harry Truman has been reelected when, after February of the election year, less than half of Americans approved of his conduct in office. The Pew Center for the People and the Press also found that only one in three expressed satisfaction with “the way things are going in the country today.”
The fallout from Bush’s corrupt policies and delusional assertions present Democrat John Kerry with numerous opportunities. Nationwide polls show the Massachusetts senator pulling ahead, most notably in 16 key battleground states where he tops Bush 48 percent to 44 percent. And it’s unlikely to stop there. “The more important fact is that [Bush is] going down” in survey numbers, one Bush campaign aide told the Los Angeles Times. “All Kerry has to have is a couple good weeks” and he can build a lead.
For Kerry to have these “good weeks” he and his party must do more than simply be the opposition. They must rise above the Bush Doctrine of duck and cover, subterfuge and lies by offering solutions that work both at home and abroad. Without seeming to politicize issues — a tactic disfavored by voters when it relates to the war — Kerry must outline a specific agenda for the next four years that includes a timed exit strategy from the morass Bush has created in Iraq.
The politics of fear Bush created and then exploited to galvanize his support are increasingly rejected by Americans, indicating a real desire to return sanity to the public dialogue. Not only will this restore reason to the White House, it will reset our moral compass in a more humane direction.