Poll: U.S. Backs Bush On War

U.S. soldiers wear their gas masks as they head to the Iraqi border in a convoy through the desert in northern Kuwait, Thursday, March 20, 2003. After the first bombs and cruise missiles fell on Baghdad early Thursday, reports said at least three missiles were fired by Iraq into Kuwait and that U.S. and British troops were preparing for combat. AP/Pool

As Operation Iraqi Freedom gets underway, Americans express support for the U.S. military action against Iraq, and they are starting to rally behind President George W. Bush -- although not to the extent they rallied behind his father in 1991.

On Thursday, CBS News and The New York Times re-interviewed a sample of respondents first interviewed two weeks ago. In this early poll after the war against Iraq began last Wednesday night, this group has clearly rallied in support of both the timing of U.S. military actions against Iraq, and in its approval of the President's handling of Iraq. But there are indications that the early rally may not be as strong as it was in the first Persian Gulf War in 1991.

74% now approve of the U.S. taking military action against Iraq, up from 64% among these same respondents two weeks ago. One in three of those who disapproved of military action then shifted to approval after the war began.

MILITARY ACTION AGAINST IRAQ
(Among Same Respondents)

Approve:

Now
74%
Two Weeks Ago
64%

Disapprove:

Now
23%
Two Weeks Ago
32%


There was a similar shift on the question of taking action now or giving United Nations military inspectors more time. In this poll, 62% said now was the right time to start the war, while 35% said the inspectors should have been given more time. Two weeks ago, 52% of these same respondents wanted to give weapons inspectors more time. Other questions about support for the war showed the same patterns.

RIGHT TIME FOR U.S. TO TAKE MILITARY ACTION?
(Among Same Respondents)

Yes:

Now
62%
Two Weeks Ago
45%

No:

Now
35%
Two Weeks Ago
52%

68% think the U.S. did the right thing getting involved in Iraq, while 26% think the U.S. should have stayed out. That is somewhat lower than the reaction in January 1991, just after the U.S. began military action against Iraq.

Most of the support for military action is based on a feeling that this is simply the right thing to do now. 60% of the public approves of taking military action against Iraq because it is the right thing to do, while 13% support it because they want to support their president.

APPROVAL OF THE PRESIDENT

As support for the war rises, so has approval of the President. 67% now approve of the way he is handling his job as President. While that is nine points higher than it was a week ago, it has not changed that much since a poll conducted immediately after the President addressed the nation on Monday night to issue an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein. Two weeks ago, Bush's approval rating was 54% among these same respondents.

THE PRESIDENT'S APPROVAL RATINGS

Overall:

Now
67%
3/17
64%
3/15-16
58%
Two Weeks Ago
54%

Handling Iraq Situation:

Now
70%
3/17
63%
3/15-16
55%
Two Weeks Ago
52%


The President's handling of the Iraq situation in particular has also gotten a boost, and is now higher than his overall approval rating. 70% now approve of the way he is handling Iraq, up from 63% earlier in the week and 52% among this group two weeks ago.

Most Americans now believe the President exhausted all diplomatic options before getting the military involved in Iraq, with two-thirds saying he tried hard enough to reach a diplomatic solution to the crisis. This was not always the case, but Americans became increasingly likely to give the President credit for his efforts at the U.N. as hostilities neared. In January, just 38% of Americans thought President Bush was trying hard enough to find a peaceful solution.

BUSH: WORKED HARD ENOUGH TO FIND A DIPLOMATIC SOLUTION?

Yes:

Now
66%
Two Weeks Ago
54%
2/03
45%
1/03
38%

No:

Now
32%
Two Weeks Ago
40%
2/03
48%
1/03
55%


Most Americans are also sure he has made the right decision regarding Iraq. Two weeks ago, 54% were confident he would make the right call when it came to military action. Now, 60% say they are confident that he did.

Half think the President's decisions on Iraq are motivated by a desire to get rid of Saddam Hussein, while 20% believe he is more interested in stopping Iraq's manufacturing of weapons of mass destruction. 16% think Bush is motivated by a desire to protect the oil supply to the U.S. But many also see the President's motivations as more personal. Nearly half think he is motivated by a personal desire to accomplish what his father's administration did not in the Persian Gulf.

45% think Bush has the respect of other world leaders; 43% think he does not. Those views have not changed with the start of the war.

DOES BUSH HAVE RESPECT OF WORLD LEADERS?

Yes
45%
No
43%

Approval of the way Congress is handling its job has also experienced a rally. In this poll, 52% approve of the job Congress is doing, up from 45% last October. This is the highest evaluation the Congress has received in over a year.

OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM VS. THE 1991 PERSIAN GULF WAR

While a rally has clearly taken place, it is not as strong as the rally after the start of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Then there was a greater increase in support immediately after military action had begun. But Americans were initially less supportive of military action in Iraq in 1991 than they were in 2003, and the increase in support for the war after it began represented a much greater shift in 1991 than in 2003.

Prior to the 1991 bombing of Baghdad, Americans were evenly divided as to whether to start action, or to give economic sanctions more time. Once the U.S.-led attack began, more than half of those who favored waiting changed their minds. 78% of all adults supported military action as it began in January 1991, compared with 62% today.

2003: RIGHT TIME FOR U.S. TO TAKE MILITARY ACTION?
(Among Same Respondents)

Yes:

Now
62%
Two Weeks Ago
45%

No, U.S. should wait:

Now
35%
Two Weeks Ago
52%


1991: RIGHT TIME FOR U.S. TO TAKE MILITARY ACTION?
(Among Same Respondents)

Yes:

1/17/91
78%
1/5-7/91
47%

No, U.S. should wait:

1/17/91
18%
1/5-7/91
47%

In 1991, the alternative to taking military action was giving a trade embargo and economic sanctions more time to work; in 2003 the alternative is giving U.N. weapons inspectors more time.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH AND PRESIDENT GEORGE H.W. BUSH

The 1991 war brought a huge surge in the public's approval ratings for then-President George H.W. Bush. In a poll conducted from January 5-7 1991, 64% approved of the job he was doing as president. Immediately after the war began, 86% of the same respondents approved of the job he was doing. His approval ratings remained near that level in the four months following the start of the war, reaching a high of 88% in March 1991.

So far, George W. Bush's presidential approval ratings have not yet rallied quite as impressively as his father's did in 1991. In the poll conducted two weeks ago, 54% of these same respondents approved of the job President George W. Bush was doing; that has risen to 67% in this poll.

But it should still be noted that George W. Bush did receive an enormous rally after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In August 2001, 50% approved and 38% disapproved of the job he was doing. In a poll conducted September 11-12, 2001, 72% approved of the job President Bush was doing, and his approval rating continued to climb steadily, reaching a high of 90% in October 2001. More recent polls in early 2003 have showed his approval rating in the mid- to high 50s.

1991 AND 2003: PRESIDENTIAL APPROVAL RATINGS

G.H.W. Bush (Among Same Respondent):

Approve:

Pre_1991 war (1/5-7/91
64%
Post-start of war (1/17/91)
86%

Disapprove:

Pre-1991 war (1/5-7/91
25%
Post-start of war (1/17/91)
11%


G.W. Bush (Among Same Respondents):

Approve:

Pre-2003 war (2 weeks ago)
54%
Post-start of war (3/20/03)
67%

Disapprove:

Pre-2003 war (2 weeks ago)
39%
Post-start of war (3/20/03)
31%


And while George W. Bush receives a boost in his handling of the situation with Iraq, it is not nearly as large or as high as the one his father got.


RATING THE PRESIDENT'S HANDLING OF IRAQ

G.H.W. Bush (Among Same Respondents):

Approve:

Pre-1991 war (1/5-7/91)
57%
Post-start of war (1/17/91
85%

Disapprove:

Pre-1991 war (1/5-7/91
35%
Post-start of war (1/17/91)
12%


G.W. Bush (Among Same Respondents)

Approve:

Pre-2003 war (2 weeks ago)
52%
Post-start of war (3/20/03)
70%

Disapprove:

Pre-2003 war (2 weeks ago)
44%
Post start of war (3/20/03
27%


REACTIONS AND EXPECTATIONS

By two to one, Americans see this war, and the task of removing Saddam Hussein from power, as worth the potential loss of life and other costs of the war. Feelings about the 1991 war were similar.

Expectations about the length of the war are somewhat mixed, with 51% expecting it will take just a few weeks, and 40% expecting it may last for many months.

There is concern about casualties, and 53% do not think the military should attack military targets in heavily populated areas.

Americans have felt for many months that war with Iraq was inevitable, but when they first heard that it had started, more Americans reported feeling worried than relieved to have it finally underway.

HOW DID YOU FEEL WHEN THE WAR STARTED?

Worried:

Now
54%
1991
55%

Relieved:

Now
34%
1991
37%


In 1991, at the start of the Persian Gulf War, Americans were also anxious. Then, 55%, about the same percentage as today, said they were worried, not relieved. As recently as Monday, after President Bush announced the 48-hour ultimatum for Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq, a majority had claimed they were relieved that action would soon begin.

Some of the anxiety may be due to an increased number who fear terrorist attacks as reprisals, as the country moves to back to a level orange security alert. Two weeks ago, 51% of these same respondents said they thought the threat from terrorist attacks would increase at the start of military action. Now, 59% think that.

NOW THAT THE WAR HAS STARTED, WILL THE TERRORIST THREAT…?
(Among Same Respondents)

Increase:

Now
59%
Two Weeks Ago
51%

Decrease:

Now
8%
Two Weeks Ago
15%

,b>Stay the same

Now
32%
Two Weeks Ago
33%


The way in which the conflict opened took nearly half the country by surprise, as the Pentagon launched a series of selective air and ground strikes, instead of the massive "shock and awe" campaign many had expected.

HAS THE WAR STARTED THE WAY YOU EXPECTED IT WOULD?

Yes
49%
No
44%

Despite the initial "decapitating" air strikes that marked the start of the conflict as the U.S. tried to hit the top Iraqi leadership, and a day of government and media speculation about the fate of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, nearly all Americans think he is most likely still alive.

IS SADDAM HUSSEIN STILL ALIVE?

Yes
84%
No
4%




This poll was conducted among a nationwide random sample of 463 adults, interviewed by telephone on March 20, 2003. They had first been interviewed March 7-9, 2003. The error due to sampling could be plus or minus five percentage points for results based on the entire sample. The sampling error will be higher on results based on subgroups, and it will be significantly lower when measuring individual change.

For detailed information on how CBS News conducts public opinion surveys, click here.

  • Lloyd Vries

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