Fact-Checking President Bush’s Final Press Conference

by Frank Newport

On Iraq and U.S. global standing, Bush paints different picture than constituents do

PRINCETON, NJ -- President George W. Bush held the last official press conference of his administration Monday, and, in the course of the 47-minute event, responded to several questions that dealt at least to a degree with public opinion. Bush's responses to two issues in particular -- Iraq and the United States' position in the world -- can be looked at in the light of Gallup Poll data on the topics under consideration.

1. Iraq

Press Question: In the past, when you've been asked to address bad poll numbers or your own popularity, you've said that history will judge that you did the right thing, that you thought you did the right thing. But without getting into your motives or your goals, I think a lot of people, including Republicans, including some members of your own administration, have been disappointed at the execution of some of your ideals, whether Iraq or Katrina or the economy. What would your closing message be to the American people about the execution of these goals?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, hard things don't happen overnight, Jake. And when the history of Iraq is written, historians will analyze, for example, the decision on the surge. The situation was -- looked like it was going fine and then violence for a period of time began to throw -- throw the progress of Iraq into doubt. And rather than accepting the status quo and saying, oh, it's not worth it or the politics makes it difficult or, you know, the party may end up being -- you know, not doing well in the elections because of the violence in Iraq, I decided to do something about it -- and sent 30,000 troops in as opposed to withdrawing.

Regardless of the advisability and impact of the surge of troops in Iraq, Gallup Polls continue to show that a majority of Americans believe it was a mistake for the United States to be involved there -- despite the fact that about half of Americans agree with the president that the situation there appears to have improved as a result of the surge.

The average "Iraq mistake" percentage for 2008 was 59%. Thus, although Bush responded to the question about Iraq mainly in terms of the wisdom of the surge, current Gallup data show that regardless of the success of that specific decision, a majority of Americans still believe that the initial rationale and decision to send troops to Iraq was a mistake.

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2. Standing of the United States in the World

PRESS QUESTION: One of the major objectives that the incoming administration has talked frequently about is restoring America's moral standing in the world. And many of the allies of the new president -- I believe that the president-elect himself has talked about the damage that Gitmo, that harsh interrogation tactics that they consider torture, how going to war in Iraq without a U.N. mandate have damaged America's moral standing in the world. I'm wondering basically what is your reaction to that? Do you think that is that something that the next president needs to worry about?

THE PRESIDENT: 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.

Gallup doesn't track Americans' views of the moral standing of the United States as perceived around the world, but does track a question asking more generally about how the United States rates in the world's eyes. Americans' views in response to this "standing in the world" question have clearly diminished during the Bush years despite the president's strong assertion that the country's standing has not been damaged.

In the months following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, as many as 79% of Americans felt that the United States rated favorably in the eyes of the world. That dropped to 40% in June 2007 and 43% in February 2008. Overall, since February 2005, a majority of Americans have felt that the United States rates unfavorably in the eyes of the world.

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Earlier this month, Gallup asked Americans if the United States had made progress, stood still, or lost ground in terms of a variety of issues in the eight years since Bush took office. One of these issues was the "U.S. position in the world." On this retrospective measure, 69% of Americans say the United States lost ground during the Bush years, 12% say the country gained ground, and 17% say the United States' position in the world stayed about the same.

This was the most negative response to any of the 14 issues tested except for the economy.

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Bottom Line

President Bush is understandably interested in putting the best possible light on his administration in the final days of his time in office. And it is true that -- as Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney often opine -- the true verdict on his administration may not be rendered until its historical impact is measured decades from now. But in 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.

Survey Methods

Results discussed in this article are based on Gallup Polls, which are in turn based on telephone interviews with national adults, aged 18 and older. For results based on a typical sample of approximately 1,000 national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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