01/13/2009 03:40 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Fact Checking the President

Gallup posted an analysis by Frank Newport last night aimed at "fact checking" statements made by President George W. Bush at a press conference yesterday that dealt with public opinion. He cites Gallup data from two questions, on whether Americans perceived the decision to go to war in Iraq as a mistake and how they perceive America's standing around the world. While Bush is "is understandably interested in putting the best possible light on his administration in the final days of his time in office," as Newport puts it,

[I]n terms of contemporary American public opinion on the two issues reviewed in this article -- Iraq and the image of the United States in the world -- it is clear that Americans still view the former as a mistake (despite the success of the surge), and that the significant majority of Americans perceive the latter as having deteriorated during Bush's tenure in office.

In a sense, Newport is "fact checking" Bush's comments broadly, showing that for now, at least, majorities of Americans hold a negative view of the Bush presidency. However, Bush commented more directly on various aspects of public opinion worthy of checking against survey data.

Some of the most memorable and widely quoted comments came in response to a question about whether Bush's foreign policy and particularly the war in Iraq may have "damaged America's moral standing in the world." First, Bush attacked the premise of the question in a passage that Newport also highlighted:

I strongly disagree with the assessment that our moral standing has been damaged. It may be damaged amongst some of the elite, but people still understand America stands for freedom, that America is a country that provides such great hope.

You go to Africa, you ask Africans about America's generosity and compassion; go to India, and ask about, you know, America's -- their view of America. Go to China and ask. Now, no question parts of Europe have said that we shouldn't have gone to war in Iraq without a mandate, but those are a few countries. Most countries in Europe listened to what 1441 said, which is disclose, disarm or face serious consequences.

Newport's rejoinder focuses on how Americans believe "the United States rates in the eyes of the world." But isn't the real fact to check how citizens of other countries perceive the United States? The Pew Global Attitudes Project released a report last month that finds "the U.S. image abroad is suffering almost everywhere." Bush is right that American popularity has faded most in Western Europe (as the chart reproduced below shows), and that Africans and Indians have a better view of America than citizens of other nations (with 60% to 70% rating the U.S. favorably). Still, the overall trend has been negative:

America won a measure of global sympathy after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but the inaugural Pew Global Attitudes survey showed that by spring 2002 favorability ratings for the U.S. had already dropped in many countries since the start of the decade. Surveys conducted after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 found further declines. Positive views of the United States declined in 26 of the 33 countries where the question was posed in both 2002 and 2007.

Respondents to the 2006 survey in 13 of 15 countries found the American presence in Iraq to be an equal or greater danger to stability in the Middle East than the regime of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while 11 judged it a threat to Middle East stability greater than or equal to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Still answering the same question, Bush went on to speak to his domestic popularity:

And in terms of the decisions that I had made to protect the homeland, I wouldn't worry about popularity. What I would worry about is the Constitution of the United States, and putting plans in place that makes it easier to find out what the enemy is thinking, because all these debates will matter not if there's another attack on the homeland. The question won't be, you know, were you critical of this plan or not; the question is going to be, why didn't you do something?

Do you remember what it was like right after September the 11th around here? In press conferences and opinion pieces and in stories -- that sometimes were news stories and sometimes opinion pieces -- people were saying, how come they didn't see it, how come they didn't connect the dots? Do you remember what the environment was like in Washington? I do. When people were hauled up in front of Congress and members of Congress were asking questions about, how come you didn't know this, that, or the other? And then we start putting policy in place -- legal policy in place to connect the dots, and all of a sudden people were saying, how come you're connecting the dots?

In referencing "the environment" in Washington, Bush specifically referenced negative "news stories and sometimes opinion pieces." However, in terms of overall public opinion, the political environment remained highly supportive of the President. Bush's job performance ratings in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks were stratospheric -- hitting 92% in the Washington Post/ABC Poll. While those exceptionally high ratings receded, as the graphic published in today's post shows, Bush's approval rating remained at or above 60% for nearly two years. Seventy-one percent (71%) approved of Bush's performance on the Post/ABC poll a year after 9/11. It was not until early 2005 that more Americans expressed disapproval with Bush than approval. So no matter how harsh the "environment" may have seemed in Washington "right after 9/11," the majority of Americans remained very much behind him for at least two years.

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