Hope is still alive

George W. Bush was undone in the first instance by his misguided pursuit of a war the American people came to believe was a serious mistake, while the economy delivered the fatal political blow to the former president and his party.

On both major issues, changes wrought by President Obama and congressional Democrats are beginning to generate the promised hope. On Iraq, with voters convinced the end is in sight, the change is evident, while in the economic realm it is more like a sliver of a shimmer of a faint glimmer of hope. In both arenas, though, attitudes have shifted perceptibly in recent weeks.

A 53 percent majority of Americans remains convinced that the war in Iraq was a mistake, though that is less than the 60-63 percent who believed it an error during much of the summer.

In truth, however, Americans were always more hostile to Bush’s strategy after Saddam fell than to the initial invasion. A majority of Americans favored the use of military force to remove Saddam Hussein for over a decade before the war began, and a majority continued to support the war well into 2005.

Even today, while 42 percent told CBS/New York Times interviewers that we should never have gotten involved in the first place, a 57 percent majority maintain that toppling Saddam’s regime by force was the right thing to do. Unlike President Bush and the GOP, however, more than half of those one-time supporters of the war believe the U.S. should have ended our involvement in Iraq shortly after Saddam fell.

Even critics, though, are seeing signs of improvement on the ground. A year ago, 57 percent said things were going badly for the U.S. in Iraq, a number that has plummeted 24 points to 33 percent. These improved assessments are one reason the war has receded as a public preoccupation.

The other cause of declining relative concern about Iraq has been the dramatic rise of economic worries. Finding a silver lining here requires burrowing much deeper into what remains a very dark and ominous cloud.

While economic gloom is still pervasive — with over 90 percent negative about the current state of the economy and 67 percent saying it is getting worse — Gallup’s measure of economic optimism nonetheless nearly doubled in the last two weeks as the number saying it is getting better jumped from 15 percent to 27. At the same time, the number sensing worsening circumstances fell by 10 points.

Admittedly one of the more optimistic surveys, the latest CBS/New York Times poll reported a 10-point jump in the number of Americans evaluating the economy positively during the last month. Gallup noted a more modest five-point gain, but in these tough times, any cheery note is welcome.

These slight improvements in public perception reflect a much more dramatic change in the tenor of the economic news to which Americans are exposed. In December, fully 80 percent said they were hearing mostly bad news about the economy — a number that dropped almost 30 points, to 51 percent, in Pew’s March survey. Nearly half (46 percent) are hearing a mix of good and bad news today, compared to just 19 percent who inhabited that parallel universe in December.

Even these small positive shifts in perceptions of the country’s economic fortunes may be benefiting the president — the CBS/New York Times poll found his ratings for improving the economy inching up five points, to 61 percent.

For President Obama, however, it is not just the appearance of progress that matters, it is the reality of action.

Twice as many Americans believe President Obama is doing as much as he can to improve the economy as said the same of Bush. As a result, were he still occupying the Oval Office, Bush would not be benefiting from the improving public outlook.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.