Betsy Berlin is angry. "I don't know what [President] Bush is talking about when he says this is a strong economy; this economy is getting worse," says Berlin, 44, a self-described "domestic goddess" and registered Republican from Ambler, Pa. "There are job layoffs, prices are rising." Oh, and one more thing: "I'm a proud American, but this Iraq war puts a bad taste in my mouth." Come November, this Bush voter plans to switch to Democrat John F. Kerry.
Alarmed about defections of people like Berlin, the White House is launching a massive political offensive aimed at convincing an increasingly skeptical public that the Administration is on the right track. Most important, Bush must demonstrate that he has a coherent plan to turn around an occupation of Iraq that has badly damaged his standing in the world and with voters at home. But he must also convince war-weary Americans that the economic recovery is real, despite their concerns about skyrocketing gas prices and a middle-class squeeze. Facing dire polling numbers, the White House believes its challenge is a communications problem, while most voters see the domestic and international concerns as real. "There's a feeling that something is very wrong," says independent pollster Dick Bennett. "It's going to be very difficult for the Bush campaign to come to grips with it until they acknowledge what people are feeling and change course."
With much fanfare, but broadcast network cameras conspicuously absent, Bush opened Operation Comeback with a May 24 speech at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. Long on high-toned themes but short on specifics, he argued that the Iraq war is going better than most think. "We've had so much bad news that the perception developed that it was out of control," admits Bush adviser Charles Black. "It will take a lot of energy and effort to improve the perception."
Bush's PR push will certainly be sustained and aggressive. Among its key components: five speeches on the future of Iraq leading up to the planned June 30 transfer of sovereignty, a new U.N. resolution designed to draw erstwhile allies back into the fold, and consultations with estranged partners during the upcoming Group of Eight economic summit in Sea Island, Ga. and the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landing.
At the same time, Vice-President Dick Cheney and top Cabinet officials are opening a second front to spread cheer on the economy. At a May 24 campaign event in Little Rock, Cheney hailed a "growing prosperity" that stems from "the fastest rate of growth since Ronald Reagan's first term in the White House, and the fastest rate of any major industrialized nation in the world." But even Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans sees an uphill battle. "It's tough to break through the negative news that shows up on the front page of the paper, or shows up on the TV screen at night," he says.
How bad are things for Bush? His approval rating has dipped to between 41% and 48% in the polls. No President below the 50% mark in May has won reelection in the past half-century. Now even some core supporters are souring. A May 20-23 ABC News/Washington Post Poll found that in the past month Bush's job-approval rating has dropped by 11 points among conservatives, 7 points among Republicans, and 7 points among veterans' households -- all strong Bush constituencies.
Much of that dissatisfaction has to do with the economy. Despite a long list of positive economic indicators, from strong job growth to healthy corporate profits, voters are increasingly concerned about Bush's stewardship. Many middle-class workers, after years of stagnant wages, feel pinched by record-high gas prices, rapid inflation for grocery staples such as milk, rising health-care and tuition costs, and higher local taxes. Add to that a fear of job loss from outsourcing and uncertainty about Iraq, and there's a growing sense of doubt that the recovery is deep and durable. "There's a tremendous disconnect between political rhetoric and economic reality as perceived on the ground," says Jon Delano, a Carnegie Mellon University political scientist. "The [economic] numbers look good on paper, but that's not what people are feeling."
Indeed, only 31% of voters say the economy is improving, according to a May 18-19 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Poll, while 49% think it's deteriorating -- a reversal of the optimism felt as recently as January. The pessimism is particularly pronounced among workers earning $50,000 to $75,000 a year -- a bloc that usually leans Republican. Now, by 2 to 1, that group says the economy would improve if Kerry won, the poll found.
Treasury secretary John W. Snow argues that a lag normally exists between the beginning of a boom cycle and public perception of it. Still, he acknowledges the gas price spike has hurt. "Higher gas prices are creating a financial hardship for millions and millions of Americans," he says. "We know that. Those higher gas prices, in a way, are becoming a proxy for how they feel about the economy."
Some Bush advisers think good news from Iraq will ease the sense of economic gloom. That means convincing undecideds like Barry Aprison, director of science and technology at Chicago's Museum of Science & Industry. Aprison, 50, was impressed with Bush's May 24 speech but remains uneasy about the Iraq endgame. "His argument is logical and well thought out, but the reality on the ground is so negative," he says. "Things that we're trying to accomplish just are not being accomplished." Still, Aprison is not ready to embrace Kerry, whose economic views worry him.
But the good news Aprison and others are seeking may be slow in coming. Many analysts doubt the recent wave of violence will end anytime soon. Flynt L. Leverett, a former top Middle East official in Bush's National Security Council, goes so far as to say that Bush "doesn't have an answer on security." None of the options open to Bush is good, he says. Despite any new U.N. resolution, other nations are unwilling or unable to deploy large numbers of troops to share the security risk. And it's unlikely Americans can do the job without at least 300,000 troops -- a major escalation. That leaves the Iraqis, but Baghdad won't have the projected 260,000 soldiers and police for at least a year. "We've got to get Iraqis into the fight," says a senior Administration official.
Still, there are glimmers of progress. The Sunni hotbed of Fallujah is relatively quiet. Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shia leader, has evacuated Karbala, is losing ground in Kufa, and faces grassroots pressure to leave Najaf. The economy already has seen inflation decline, unemployment drop, the currency strengthen, and oil and electricity production rise. Now Washington is counting on Lakhdar Brahimi, special adviser to U.N. Secretary General Kofi A. Annan, to overcome jockeying among ethnic factions and fashion an interim government that would take office on July 1 and pave the way for elections next year. But questions remain about whether Iraqis will view the transitional regime as legitimate. "In name, it will have sovereignty," says Nancy Soderberg, vice-president of the International Crisis Group in New York and a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. "In reality, it will be different."
Even with all the bad news for Bush, the election is hardly lost. Despite his big drop in job approval, the President still is nearly even with his Democratic foe. "If Bush doesn't respond to the downward spiral he finds himself in, he's conceding the election," says GOP consultant Thomas N. Edmonds. "But there's still plenty of time to turn this around."
Edmonds is right. But Operation Comeback has to be more than just happy talk. Until the situation in Iraq stabilizes -- and voters can buy gas without flinching -- the President has a problem. And that's something that even months of positive reports on jobs and economic growth might not be able to overcome.
By Richard S. Dunham and Stan Crock, with Rich Miller and Lee Walczak in Washington, Dave Lindorff in Philadelphia, Rose Brady in New York, and Joseph Weber in Chicago