Saturday, November 26, 2005

Even Supporters Doubt President as Issues Pile Up

The New York Times

Even Supporters Doubt President as Issues Pile Up

COLUMBUS, Ohio, Nov. 22 - Leesa Martin never considered President Bush a great leader, but she voted for him a year ago because she admired how he handled the terrorist attacks of 2001.

Then came the past summer, when the death toll from the war in Iraq hit this state particularly hard: 16 marines from the same battalion killed in one week. She thought the federal government should have acted faster to help after Hurricane Katrina. She was baffled by the president's nomination of Harriet E. Miers, a woman she considered unqualified for the Supreme Court, and disappointed when he did not nominate another woman after Ms. Miers withdrew.

And she remains unsettled by questions about whether the White House leaked the name of a C.I.A. agent whose husband had accused the president of misleading the country about the intelligence that led to the war.

"I don't know if it's any one thing as much as it is everything," said Ms. Martin, 49, eating lunch at the North Market, on the edge of downtown Columbus. "It's kind of snowballed."

Her concerns were echoed in more than 75 interviews here and across the country this week, helping to explain the slide in the president's approval and trustworthiness ratings in recent polls.

Many people who voted for Mr. Bush a year ago had trouble pinning their current discontent on any one thing. Many mentioned the hurricane and the indictment of a top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, which some said raised doubts about the president's candor and his judgment. But there was a sense that something had veered off course in the last few months, and the war was the one constant. Over and over, even some of Mr. Bush's supporters raised comparisons with Vietnam.

"We keep hearing about suicide bombers and casualties and never hear about any progress being made," said Dave Panici, 45, a railroad conductor from Bradley, Ill. "I don't see an end to it; it just seems relentless. I feel like our country is just staying afloat, just treading water instead of swimming toward somewhere."

Mr. Panici voted for President Bush in 2004, calling it "a vote for security." "Now that a year has passed, I haven't seen any improvement in Iraq," he said. "I don't feel that the world is a safer place."

A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll in mid-November found that 37 percent of Americans approved of Mr. Bush, the lowest approval rating the poll had recorded in his presidency. That was down from 55 percent a year ago and from a high of 90 percent shortly after Sept. 11, 2001.

An Associated Press/Ipsos poll earlier in the month found the same 37 percent approval rating and recorded the president's lowest levels regarding integrity and honesty: 42 percent of Americans found him honest, compared with 53 percent at the beginning of this year.

Several of those interviewed said that in the last year they had come to believe that Mr. Bush had not been fully honest about the intelligence that led to the war, which he said showed solid evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

"I think people put their faith in Bush, hoping he would do the right thing," said Stacey Rosen, 38, a stay-at-home mother in Boca Raton, Fla., who said she voted for Mr. Bush but was "totally disappointed" in him now. "Everybody cannot believe that there hasn't been one shred of evidence of W.M.D. I think it goes to show how they tell us what they want to tell us."

Mark Briggs, who works for Nationwide Insurance here, said he did not want to believe that the president "manipulated" intelligence leading the country into war, but believed that, at least, Mr. Bush had misread it.

Still, however much he may disagree with Mr. Bush's policies, Mr. Briggs said, he admires the president for standing by what he says.

"There is the notion of leadership and sticking with the plan, which I believe in," he said. "George Bush is clear and consistent. He made a tough decision to go to war - and others voted for it, too. And I think he's right: those people may be trying to rewrite history."

Kacey Wilson, 32, eating lunch with Ms. Martin, said she, too, had concerns about the death toll from the war, but she felt that Mr. Bush spoke the truth, even if it might not be what the country wanted to hear. "I like his cut-and-dry, take-no-prisoners style," Ms. Wilson said. "I think people are used to more spinning."

Others, though, saw arrogance in that approach.

"We need to not be so stubborn," said Vicky Polka, 58, a retired school principal in Statesboro, Ga., who voted for Mr. Bush and described her support for him as "waning." "Something's not going right here. We need to resolve this. I hate to say it, but I think Iraq is going the way of Vietnam."

Few people said they were following the leak scandal, which led to the indictment of I. Lewis Libby Jr., Mr. Cheney's former aide. Some who could cite main characters and events dismissed it as little more than political theater. Even fewer said they had paid attention to other scandals preoccupying Washington: the indictment of Representative Tom DeLay, the powerful Texas Republican, and the guilty plea by his former spokesman.

But several people said that the leak scandal had left them with the sense that the president was not leveling with the public about his involvement.

"He has to give us more information," said Phil Niemie, 51, an elementary school principal eating lunch with his family in Columbus. "The longer it goes without closure, it begins to trigger those Nixon Watergate years. I felt the same way with Clinton."

But for Mr. Niemie, who voted for Mr. Bush, and others, the leak scandal raised the biggest doubts about Vice President Cheney.

"A lot of problems tie back to some of Cheney's shenanigans," Ms. Martin said. "It just seems like he could have done better for vice president the second time around."

In Atlanta, Selena Smith, a director at an advertising agency, echoed others when she said she thought too much time had already been spent on the investigation.

"The war is more important to me now," said Ms. Smith, 46. "What's the plan? Give us something to hang our teeth on. What's really top of mind for me is how many people are getting killed across the creek, and how are we going to get them home?"

Here in Ohio, the most hotly contested state in the 2004 election, the heavy toll on a local Marine battalion had played out on television and in newspapers throughout the summer's end, and the majority of two dozen people interviewed here said they wanted to see the troops come home.

Some, though, faulted Americans as having short attention spans.

"Anything that takes more than a couple of months, we get bored with," said Rich Canary, 35, an information technology specialist here. "Progress has been made. The Iraqis have a constitution. They're actually creating their own country. When you hear the soldiers talk, they feel what they're doing is important."

And there was much division about how to end the war. Some military families said it was important to finish the task the troops had begun; others said they resented accusations of being unpatriotic when they criticized the war. Some who said their approval of the president had not wavered nevertheless argued for a quick end to the war, while some of Mr. Bush's strongest critics said it would destabilize Iraq to withdraw the troops anytime soon.

"Too many people would get hurt," said Laurence Melia, 28, a salesman from Newton, Mass., who campaigned against President Bush last year. "There has to be a last foot on the ground in the end, and there might be more problems if we run away too fast."

In Houston, Geoff Van Hoeven, an accountant, said he thought the war in Iraq had aggravated the terrorist threat by creating "a breeding ground for Al Qaeda." Still, Mr. Van Hoeven said a quick withdrawal was not possible, "because America's going to be perceived as extremely weak and unreliable coming in, and when the going gets rough, they pull out."

Even those who voted against Mr. Bush a year ago saw little satisfaction in his woes.

"Part of me enjoys watching him squirm," said Shirley Tobias, 46, sitting with a colleague from Netscape at a coffee shop in Grandview, a suburb of Columbus. "But he's squirming on our behalf. We're all in this together."

Reporting for this article was contributed by Cindy Chang from Los Angeles; Bill Dawson from Houston; Brenda Goodman from Atlanta; Kelli Kennedy from Boca Raton, Fla.; Gretchen Ruethling from Chicago; and Katie Zezima from Boston.