Bush’s Oratory Helps Maintain Support for War

That’s the unironic headline of a Dana Milbank story fronting today’s WaPo.

With skillful use of language and images, President Bush and his aides have kept the American public from turning against the war in Iraq despite the swelling number of U.S. casualties there.

Even with the loss of more than 700 U.S. troops in Iraq, recent uprisings against the U.S.-led occupation there, a dwindling number of allies and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, a majority of Americans still believe that going to war in Iraq was the right thing to do. By 52 percent to 41 percent, Americans trust Bush more than Democratic challenger Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) to handle the Iraq situation, according to last week’s Washington Post-ABC News poll — a double-digit improvement for Bush from a month before.

Political strategists and public-opinion experts say a good part of this resilience of public support for Bush and the Iraq war stems from the president’s oratory. They say Bush has convinced Americans of three key points that strongly influence overall support for the war: that the United States will prevail in Iraq; that the fighting in Iraq is related to the war against al Qaeda; and that most Iraqis and many foreign countries support U.S. actions in Iraq.

I’m a supporter or both Bush and the war, but find it rather hard to believe that his oratorical prowess–“skillful use of language,” indeed–is the cornerstone of public support. Instead, I would point to loosely related factors mentioned later in the piece:

“Administration rhetoric — and more importantly, the reality that Bush is very resolved and is not afraid to show it — has undoubtedly helped shore up public support,” said Peter D. Feaver, a Duke University political scientist who served on President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council. “Moreover, administration rhetoric is tailored to address key features of public opinion — not only the public’s concern for success but even the specific indicators of success that resonate with the public.”

Bush’s chief campaign strategist, Matthew Dowd, said “it’s hard to say” how much the president’s rhetoric shapes public impression. But he said support for the war would definitely have slipped further if Bush had wavered.

“He shows resolve, and the public wants resolve,” Dowd said.

Dowd also said Bush has been aided by a Kerry position on Iraq that mixes support for the war with criticism of Bush. “The public has decided [Iraq] has problems. But whose vision do we support?” he asked. “Kerry has supported either no viable or no acceptable alternative.”

So, what we have is a more classic rally effect. A majority of the public still trusts President Bush and is willing to defer to him on matters of national security. More importantly, more people trust Bush on the issue than trust Kerry. That’s not a permanent condition, presumably, and could certainly evaporate if news from Iraq continues to be grim.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. I think his apparent lack of eloquence comes across as sincerity and makes people trust him more. I think that bad oratory is successful oratory in this case.

  2. But I thought Bush was hopeless at oratory and extemporaneous speaking. Reading Dana Milbank gets me so confused.

  3. Kevin Drum says:

    I think Milbank’s point is a worthwhile one. Bush’s speechifying may drive me up a wall, but I’m not going to vote for him anyway. There are an awful lot of people who really don’t like polished rhetoric and think that Bush’s lack of ease is a sign that he’s a real guy with real beliefs. It’s probably a real asset among a fair number of people.

  4. James Joyner says:

    An interesting point. And quite plausible, I suppose. I prefer a Tony Blair style eloquence to Bush’s stumbling, but I guess there are a large number who like the “regular guy” manner. I don’t mind Bush’s bluntness or plainspoken manner, but wish he wouldn’t stumble around so much or seem so damned uncomfortable.

  5. SwampWoman says:

    While the prez ain’t exactly eloquent, I always have preferred to listen to what somebody says over how purty they say it. Bill was a good orator but you couldn’t believe hardly anything he said. I did admire his speechifying ability, don’t get me wrong, but I never put too much stock in what he said.

  6. Al Bee says:

    There are a whole big bunch of us who are much like Bush. Clintons glibness was an affront to many of us knowing that Clinton was crossing his fingers behind his back.

    Bush’s popularity is outside the range of the Post’s comprehension. For the last 5 years the Post’s writer have described Bush as stupid, inarticulate and lacking gracefulness. The denigration of the President has not worked and the Post is now trying a different tack. Milbank has been especially critical of the President. Perhaps he has decided if he can’t beat him he might as well join him. Nah, we wouldn’t want him.

  7. Frankly, Kevin and some others are still missing the point. The purpose of of communication is to, well, communicate, and Bush is doing that rather well. Does anyone not understand what he is trying to get across? Not understanding and not liking are two entirely different things. The skill and cleverness of polished sophistry has been too long substituted for having a point.