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Order In The Court Of Public Opinion

Order In The Court Of Public OpinionTufts' Richard Eichenberg has been analyzing public opinion and national security for 20 years. According to his research, attitudes toward the conflict in Iraq spell bad news for President Bush.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [08.25.05] Everyone knows that the decisions made by the president of the United States are subject to intense scrutiny, most often reflected in the president's popularity polls. But for Richard Eichenberg, an associate professor of political science at Tufts, each percentage point tells a profound story.

"Public opinion is the core of democracy," says Eichenberg, who has spent the past 20 years studying the public's response to issues of national security. "Hard working people expect their government to respond to their concerns and preferences, and I think it's important to study just how well their government serves them."

Eichenberg describes how people form opinions
Eichenberg talks about public opinion regarding the war in Iraq

The story Eichenberg has been focusing on lately is the ongoing conflict in Iraq. Working with colleague Richard Stoll, a professor of political science at Rice University in Texas, he has examined how casualty rates in Iraq affect the popularity of the president.

But his interest in public opinion and national security stretches much further back. His first book on the subject, Public Opinion and National Security in Western Europe, was published in 1989. In 1996, Eichenberg began to focus on public opinion regarding the use of force in military conflicts since 1980. His recent research includes extensive databases recording worldwide public opinion toward war, and he hopes to publish a comprehensive book on the subject in the next two years.

While public opinion may seem like too subjective a matter to approach so scientifically, Eichenberg says that there is a clear method to how it is formed. People view information through two main filters: personal value systems and the viewpoints of respected leaders. A case in point, he says, is the buildup to the war in Iraq.

"The president and the vice president were consistently repeating and in many cases very, very cleverly drawing a connection between [9/11 and] the need to go to war against Iraq," says Eichenberg. "It is not surprising that public opinion registered the connection. How is the average citizen to know? We don't have the intelligence. We'll trust the president until other evidence appears."

But while many factors influence public opinion, Eichenberg asserts that individual citizens are the ultimate arbiters of their own perspectives.

"You cannot totally manipulate the opinion of the American people," Eichenberg states. "Basically, citizens conduct a comparison. Is the policy succeeding? Here's what the president says, here's the other reality I see in the media."

That distinction plays a major role in determining the credibility of the war and the leaders behind it. The president's credibility, he suspects, is very closely tied to the public's feelings on the situation in Iraq.

"If you put the trend line of his credibility - and these are questions on trust and honesty and that kind of thing - next to the curves for support of the war in Iraq, I think you would probably find they go together," he explains. "You can only tell people the world is flat for so long before they start to question you."

There are numerous factors that have a bearing on this credibility gap. The comparison on both sides of the partisan aisle between the conflict in Iraq and the war in Vietnam is one. According to Eichenberg's research, Iraq could potentially be more politically damaging than Vietnam, due to the toll the war is taking on the members of the National Guard and reserves serving in Iraq.
"Many of these women and men are established members of their communities - policemen, lawyers and the like, who are well-known," explains Eichenberg, differentiating these from the "boys next door" many people associate with the casualties from Vietnam. "The strain on the Guard and Reserve has really hurt Bush politically."

And while polls have sometimes registered increases in support for the president after major milestones - such as the capture of Saddam Hussein and the transfer of power to the Iraqis - Eichenberg says that these jumps are often short-lived.

"These boosts happen, but for the most part they're minor, and lacking other evidence - of a success of the mission - the president's approval ratings andthe approval of the war are likely to return to what we might call a reality-based equilibrium," says Eichenberg.

The news cycle can also play a huge role in influencing public opinion. This summer, Eichenberg says, Iraq has stayed in the news more than it might normally have due to the protests staged by Cindy Sheehan - whose son died fighting in Iraq - outside Bush's Texas ranch.

"The effect of Ms. Sheehan is to guarantee that Iraq is in the news every day," he explains. "During the time that the media is focused on Iraq because of Ms. Sheehan, the news has been very, very bad, thinking in particular of that unit from Ohio [which lost 14 members in early August]."

Additionally, as Iraqi leaders struggle to draft a constitution that the nation's conflicting ethnic groups can agree upon, Eichenberg says that Americans are paying attention.

"The Iraqi government is not going to be a New England town meeting. It is not going to be fully secular, it is more likely going to be an Islamic republic," says Eichenberg. "Of course, this could confuse and even unsettle the American public, because of the uncertain future of women's rights and the ties of major Islamic parties to Iran. Of course, this style of democracy might very well suit Iraq, but Americans will be asking if the result was worth the cost."

If Eichenberg sounds passionate about this subject, it's because he is. But he's also passionate about teaching. While interviewing for a spot on the political science faculty at Tufts in 1984, he met and debated with a group of students for nearly an hour.
"They were bright, unceremonious and unfailingly polite," he says. "I fell in love with those students 20 years ago, and the fun hasn't stopped since."

And while teaching is fun for this political science professor, he is ever-mindful of the accountability academics like himself must help foster.
"The university and the scholars within it have a precious freedom - and also a responsibility - to contribute to the democratic process by studying these issues," he asserts. "Somebody should pay attention to what the average citizen thinks."


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