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Polls Reveal Public Concerned About Iraq

December 12, 2006 at 6:25 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: One week after the Iraq Study Group released its bleak assessment of the state of the war in Iraq, four new surveys show that the public remains pessimistic, as well.

ABC News and the Washington Post report 70 percent of Americans disapprove of the president’s handling of the war. USA Today and the Gallup organization report 76 percent say Iraq is now a civil war.

CBS News finds 70 percent are uneasy about the president’s ability to make the right decisions on Iraq. And the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press finds 58 percent believe a timetable should be set for withdrawing U.S. troops.

Joining us to look more deeply into public attitudes on the war, Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center.

Welcome back, Andy. This pessimism that we see in these polls, was it related in any way to what we saw in the Iraq Study Group report?

ANDREW KOHUT, Pew Center for the People and the Press: I don’t think so. I mean, I think it’s just a matter of the public continuing to track what’s going on in Iraq.

We find that Iraq is at the top of the public’s news diet every month. We asked people this month, “How many Americans have been killed there?” And Americans are not famous for knowing facts about the news, and they gave us a spot-on number. I mean, they know what’s going on.

I don’t think — the interesting thing about the Iraq Study Group is Washington was pre-occupied by it, but only half the American public in our poll said that they had even heard of it. And only 18 percent in the Gallup survey said they had followed it very closely. So I don’t think that’s the mover.

GWEN IFILL: Is it possible because people had already reached some of the same conclusions that we’ve been reporting on from that report?

ANDREW KOHUT: I don’t think it’s indifference; I think it’s cynicism. The poll also found most people thinking that President Bush — only 28 percent think that President Bush is going to follow the recommendations of that poll.

Plus, I don’t think that commissions of Washington people have a lot of credibility or evoke a lot of interest among the public, given how despondent it is about Iraq.

A 'desire for change'

GWEN IFILL: So what do these surveys tell us about the president's popularity, of his approval ratings, and whether he still has the credibility to prosecute this war?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, he has a long way to go to recover that credibility: 71 percent in our poll say they disapprove of the way he's handling the war in Iraq. That's the highest negative number ever recorded about anything that he's done, and all of these other polls, as you showed in the intro, have basically the same numbers.

Something's got to change there for the public to have more faith in President Bush. There was one poll that I saw that found, while there's a division of opinion about whether we go or stay, only 3 percent said we should be staying the course with the same strategy.

There is a tremendous desire for change; there's no consensus about what that change should be.

GWEN IFILL: Do these findings break down at all along partisan lines?

ANDREW KOHUT: Very much so. Unlike Vietnam 20 years ago or 30 years ago, there's a huge gap. Republicans, the majority of Republicans, 57 percent, say the war's still going well. Only 19 percent of Democrats feel that and 30 percent of independents.

Similarly, the questions about, "Should we go get our troops out as soon as possible?" show huge gaps. When public opinion went negative in Iraq, it was more or less bipartisan; it's not bipartisan here.

There's still a great deal of public support, Republican support for the war, not as much as there was at the beginning of the year, but still pretty substantial.

Not meeting objectives

GWEN IFILL: While we were in Washington debating whether this is a civil war or not, it sounds like the public beat us to the punch on that point. So many people, according to these surveys, seem to already be there.

ANDREW KOHUT: Yes, the Gallup survey had 72 percent saying civil war. We asked the question which says, "Is it more a civil war or more of an insurgency that we face?" And we saw a jump from 42 percent to 52 percent, in just a few months, saying it's a civil war that we're dealing with.

But, you know, one of the things that the polls also show is this definition of civil war doesn't change. If you take a look at the people who say civil war versus not civil war, they have the same set of attitudes that is largely pretty bleak on balance.

GWEN IFILL: Is there any way to compare this to what happened to public opinion during the Vietnam War?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, one of the real findings to come out of our poll this month is that, for the first time since we've been asking the question -- and we started in mid-2004 -- Americans are now saying, "This is like Vietnam. We're not going to meet our objectives." We get a majority of people saying that.

And what it represents is, when Vietnam is used as the comparison, it's a tremendous symbol of American failure. And now people are -- a 52 percent majority are ascribing it to Iraq.

GWEN IFILL: So what's happened to the optimism? Do people think that the war is even worth fighting anymore?

ANDREW KOHUT: A very large percentage of them say this was not worth it. Now, there's still not a consensus about what to do, how quickly to get out. Among the people who say, "Get out now," we find many of those people say, "Well, I don't really mean now. I mean gradually."

Among the people who say, "We have to stay the course," almost half of them say, "We need a timetable."

The public wants something to happen. They recognize that the dangers -- or think there are dangers in precipitously rushing out of -- most think there are dangers in rushing out of Iraq, but they don't know what to think, and they don't provide a real -- there's not public opinion being fed back to the leaders that says, "This is the way to go."

Public frustration over war effort

GWEN IFILL: How intense are the feelings that people are coming -- is this a mushy disapproval or is it pretty strong disapproval?

ANDREW KOHUT: It's very strong disapproval. The conflicted attitudes don't represent lack of thought, lack of conviction, or lack of concern. They represent real frustration and puzzlement as to what to do about this very bad situation.

GWEN IFILL: OK, so you talked about what people want to do, about they want a withdrawal of some kind, a timetable of some kind. Is anyone saying, "Get out now"?

ANDREW KOHUT: About 20 percent of the public is saying, "Get out now." It's largely Democrats; it's largely liberals. But a majority of the public are either saying, "Let's get out on a slower basis, or let's stay the course."

GWEN IFILL: And, as you look at what the president has to do next, I wonder whether people think, now with the Democratic Congress coming and taking charge, that this is a reason for optimism, that the Democrats have a better plan or that this president is able to work with the Democrats.

ANDREW KOHUT: It's pretty interesting. The FOX News poll found that the public doesn't have much more confidence in the Democrats than they have in Republicans. And the group that they have the most confidence to recommend the right thing are the generals.

That's the difference between this war and Vietnam. In Vietnam, the public lost its faith and confidence in the military. The public still looks at the military and says, "They probably know what to do," more confidence in the military to recommend things than the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which means the president has a bit of leverage in turning to the military to come up with a -- to recommend a solution.

GWEN IFILL: But no confidence that the bipartisanship can extend to the president and Congress?

ANDREW KOHUT: Probably not, because Republicans and Democrats are so divided.

Although one of the things that the poll did show was that, even though there wasn't a great deal of attention paid to this report, there was bipartisan support for many of the main conclusions: negotiating with Syrian and Iran, 70 percent agreed with that idea; of jump-starting the Israeli-Palestinian talks and peace process; and making the military forces go into training mode rather than in combat.

So there was -- in a war where there's a lot of partisan divides, the study group did, in fact, recommend things that the Republicans and Democrats could agree on.

GWEN IFILL: OK, well, we'll see if any of it happens.