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Bush Tries to Build Support for Iraq Strategy


President Bush made an impassioned plea for support for his new Iraq strategy in his State of the Union Address Tuesday. But many political experts are skeptical that Mr. Bush will have much success in turning around congressional and public opposition to his new plan, especially his decision to send an additional 20,000 combat troops into Iraq. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more on the aftermath of the president's speech from Washington.

In his speech, the president was mindful of the lack of public support for his new approach on Iraq. But Mr. Bush also challenged members of Congress, saying whatever you voted for in Iraq, you did not vote for failure.

"Our country is pursuing a new strategy in Iraq and I ask you to give it a chance to work," he said. "And I ask you to support our troops in the field and those on the way."

The president has made little headway in building support for his efforts in Iraq in recent weeks, both within Congress and among the public.

Several Republicans have joined Democrats in questioning the new Iraq strategy, and recent public opinion polls give Mr. Bush some of the lowest approval ratings of his presidency.

Senator Jim Webb of Virginia was quick to point all of this out in the official Democratic response to the president's speech.

"The majority of the nation no longer supports the way this war is being fought, nor does the majority of our military, nor does the majority of Congress," he said. "We need a new direction."

In his address, the president tried to broaden the issues agenda beyond Iraq with new proposals on energy, health care and immigration. But much of the reaction after the speech dealt with Iraq, still the top issue for most Americans according to recent polls.

Among those reacting were several lawmakers who are either running for president or who have taken some initial steps to do so.

Arizona Senator John McCain is a supporter of the president's troops surge in Iraq.

"Americans are frustrated and they are angry, but if we can show them a way out, and one that is convincing, then I think that they will support it," he said.

On the other side, Illinois Senator Barack Obama vows to make his opposition to the president's Iraq policy a key part of his presidential campaign.

"The experts believe, as I believe, that an additional 20,000 troops is not going to change the dynamic there," he noted. "It will put more of our young men and women in harm's way without solving the essential political problem that exists in Iraq right now."

Events like the State of the Union Address present the president with an opportunity to build public support for his policies. But with the public turning against the war, Mr. Bush faces perhaps the greatest challenge of his presidency in trying to restore public confidence in the war effort.

"In any democracy in the world, including ours, and we have proven this with [the war in] Vietnam, you cannot fight a war for very long unless the public understands what the threat is and whether they support the mission that is linked to that problem and threat, in other words, the solution," said James Thurber, a political expert at American University in Washington.

The president is pressing ahead with his new Iraq strategy despite the fact that Democrats are now in charge of Congress for the first time in 12 years, and most have spoken out against the troops surge.

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake says both parties face some major political challenges in the months ahead.

"On the Democratic side, voters want change and they are giving us the benefit of the doubt, but we are going to have to deliver on that change," she said. "On the Republican side, they are running under a very unpopular lame duck president whose legacy is fast becoming one of failure in Iraq and ineffectiveness. They are going to have to get out from underneath that and define their own alternative."

A growing number of Republicans have signaled doubts about the president's Iraq policy. But Republican pollster Ed Goeas says Mr. Bush is still admired by his most loyal supporters for pushing ahead on Iraq despite the lack of public support.

"It is not about where is his legacy today. It is doing the right thing in the face of popularity currently or job approval currently to do what he thinks is the right thing," he said. "And I think history will treat him very well even though he has, during this current period of time, been very willing to put both his presidential credibility and his personal popularity on the line."

Mr. Bush has said Iraq will be a major part of his presidential legacy. But when pressed in recent interviews, the president says he is too busy trying to win in Iraq to worry how he will be judged by history.

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