The Washington Times

President Bush’s job-approval ratings have taken a dip since November, and this has mainly had the effect of cheering up two distinct but to a degree overlapping sets of people. First, there are the anti-Bush partisans as such, who have mainly interpreted the decline as a sign that Mr. Bush is not, after all, wrapped in a cloak of invincibility because of Americans’ concerns with national security. And second, there are the opponents of war in Iraq, who are inclined to see Mr. Bush’s falloff as an indication of increasing public opposition to his war plans.

But those seeking an explanation for the dip might be best served by recalling that his father, too, saw his job approval ratings decline in the fall of 1990 – that is, well after President George H.W. Bush had declared Aug. 5 that Iraq’s conquest of Kuwait would “not stand,” and at the same time as the huge buildup of military forces in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere around the Persian Gulf was under way, but before the shooting started.

At the time, some were inclined to interpret the dip as an indication of mounting opposition to the idea of a war to dislodge Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. This was, of course, a view especially popular with those who opposed the war – and note that the opposition to the first Gulf War was much more vocal, with dire predictions about U.S. casualties running to the tens of thousands, and with Congress in particular more closely divided. Congress didn’t start formally debating a resolution authorizing the use of force until Jan. 10, 1991. Final congressional authorization came two days later, the Senate voting 52-47 in favor. [In 2002, the Senate vote came within weeks of George W. Bush’s formal presentation of his case to the United Nations, and it was a lopsided 77-23]. And indeed, in some polls taken in 1991, opposition to the war appeared to be edging up in the fall, just as the elder Mr. Bush’s numbers were dropping.

This interpretation was somewhat hard to square with other data, however. First of all, the elder Mr. Bush’s tough rhetorical stand against Iraq from the outset had gained him popularity. Second, after the air war started on January 17, 1991, Mr. Bush’s approval rating went back up. Now, perhaps that was just another case of people rallying around the commander in chief in wartime. But note that the ground war, the anticipated venue for the most serious U.S. casualties according to the dire predictions, was still an indeterminate number of days or weeks away. [It would start Feb. 24.] If people were, in fact, increasingly opposed to the idea of a war because of worries about high casualties in a ground war, they might be expected to have been alarmed by the start of the air campaign. But they weren’t.

So a better interpretation of the elder Mr. Bush’s declining job approval ratings in the fall of 1990, it seems to me, is a growing amount of frustration among the public with how long things were taking. The president had made his position perfectly clear. But where was the action to back it up?

It is perfectly plausible that what the current President Bush is running into here is the same sort of public impatience, a quality not unheard-of in the American character. Preparation, if it goes on long enough, can begin to resemble irresolution. And note that public support for a war against Iraq remains high, as it was throughout 2002. So long as Mr. Bush himself is resolute, he has little to worry about [except, well, winning the war]. Mr. Bush’s rhetoric itself, which was popular enough with Americans to see his approval ratings jump into the stratosphere, set the standard by which he will now be judged. If he lives up to his words, he has reason to expect to be rewarded.

In this context, though, the bigger potential source of political trouble may be continuing administration vacillation on North Korea. Mr. Bush set down markers, not only for Baghdad but also for Pyongyang. Whether he is happy he did so or not, he established the two as in some way part of the same problem, and there is no separating them now. He needs success in both cases.

So, the opponents of war in Iraq who have been taking heart from Mr. Bush’s slippage are almost certainly wrong to think it is an indicator of the emergence of dovish sentiment among the American public. And those anti-Bush partisans who have interpreted the dip as a sign that Mr. Bush is vulnerable notwithstanding the mantle of national security – perhaps to stepped-up attacks from Democrats on Capitol Hill – need to take into account the possibility that Mr. Bush’s slip is in fact a product of heightened public concern or frustration with him over national security.