10 years later: The Iraq war's lasting impact on U.S. politics

iraq, reconstruction, graphic, generic AP

In the months leading up to the Iraq war, an up-and-coming state senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, gave a passionate speech about the looming conflict, calling it "rash" and "dumb."

Today, on the 10-year anniversary of the start of the war, Americans are still politically divided over the war, though most say the U.S. should have avoided it.

It may take decades more to sort out all of the global consequences of the Iraq war, but the impact it had on U.S. politics -- particularly for Mr. Obama -- are strikingly clear. The Iraq war helped win Mr. Obama the presidency and put his party in a new position of strength on the issue of national security. The Democrats managed to regain control of the House and the Senate in 2006 as President Bush struggled to justify the ongoing conflict to an increasingly impatient electorate.

The war made voters reconsider their long-standing prejudices about national security, giving Democrats an opening to win complete control in Washington and enact a robust domestic agenda that included stimulus spending, health care reform and Wall Street reform.

Bush's war

In the months before and immediately after the start of the war, President Bush had significant public support for the effort. Public opinion of the war, however, quickly soured. As early as November 2003, half of Americans said that the result of the war wasn't worth the loss of American lives and other costs of attacking Iraq, according to CBS News polling.

As the public turned on the war, they also turned on President Bush. His approval rating in 2004 began to fall below 50 percent, and he trailed his Democratic opponent John Kerry for a large part of the year. Still, unemployment hovered around the decent rate of 5.5 percent in 2004 and the economy was generally healthy, and Mr. Bush managed to win reelection.

National Election Day exit polling in 2004 showed that 52 percent of Americans thought the war was going badly, while 44 percent thought it was going well. Fifty-five percent of Americans said the war was part of the "war on terrorism," while 42 percent said it wasn't.

"He won in spite of the war, absolutely," James Carafano, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation, told CBSNews.com.

There was evidence that year that the war was not going as planned -- such as the lack of weapons of mass destruction. The real factor that led to the public's intolerance with the war, however, was simply time, Carafano contended -- a factor that only started to boil over after the 2004 elections. "The real turning point is the length of and the seeming frustration with the occupation," he said. Even if investigators had found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Carafano conjectured, "It still would've been a very unpopular war" if it were long and bloody.

By 2006, Democrats were ready to exploit the political opportunity before them. By September of that year, according to Gallup polling data, Democrats had nearly erased the once-large advantage Republicans had on the issue of national security. When asked which political party would do "a better job of protecting the country from international terrorism and military threats," Americans gave Republicans just a two-point edge that month. When Gallup started asking the question in 2002, the GOP had a 19-point lead.

Republicans initially wanted to capitalize on the conflict, criticizing Democrats who wanted to "cut and run." That argument, however, was undermined by ongoing violence and, by late September, a partially declassified National Intelligence Estimate which charged that the war had only worsened the global terrorist threat and strengthened radical Islam.

In the final weeks of the campaign, it was Democrats -- not Republicans -- talking about the war. Candidates with wartime experience like Tammy Duckworth, an Army Captain and helicopter pilot who lost both legs in Iraq, were out front responding to Republican criticisms.

"I didn't cut and run, Mr. President," Duckworth said in the Democrats' weekly radio address in September 2006. "Like so many others, I proudly fought and sacrificed. ... And I believe the brave men and women who are serving in Iraq today, their families and the American people deserve more than the same empty slogans and political name-calling."

Another veteran, Senate candidate Jim Webb, was one of several Democrats running attack ads against their respective opponents on the issue. Webb's ad showed his opponent, then-Sen. George Allen, R-Va., delivering the infamous adage, "We need to stay the course."

About a week before Election Day, Mr. Bush stepped up his rhetoric on the war. "However they put it, the Democrat approach in Iraq comes down to this: The terrorists win and America loses," the president said in a campaign stop on Oct. 30.

Ultimately, in 2006 Democrats won control of both the House and the Senate. National exit polls showed 57 percent of voters disapproved of the war in Iraq, while 58 percent disapproved of Mr. Bush's job performance.

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