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American optimism still abounds on Iraq

As we prepare for this fall’s big vote, and amid otherwise gloomy current polling on Iraq, Americans at the least seem to share a rosy view of the future.

As the 101st Airborne Division marched into Najaf, Iraq, early in April 2003, the New York Times caught up with a liberated local. What, the man was asked, did he hope to see now that the Baath Party had been driven from power in his town? What would the Americans bring? The man told the Times: “Democracy. Whiskey. And sexy!"

Clearly, while we’ve been exporting American democracy, we’ve also sent over America’s penchant for three-word political slogans. “Democracy. Whiskey. And Sexy!” ranks right up there in pantheon of political rhetoric with "read my lips," "where’s the beef," and "make my day." Or, more in line with what was on this Iraqi’s mind: rum, romanism and rebellion.

Democracy. Whiskey. Sexy. Yes, three of the four freedoms President Roosevelt pushed.

But the guy left out one other thing Americans are known for — polling.

After our forces secured Iraq, the pollsters quickly launched their own invasion. Soon we learned how the war played in Iraq. And how Iraqis are anticipating the upcoming milestone —the return of sovereignty on June 30. One year after the freedom-loving, whiskey-drinking Najaf chap in heat talked to the New York Times, Gallup found this: Although Iraqis are divided on whether their country is currently better (42 percent) or worse (39 percent) off than before the invasion, “there is striking optimism regarding the country's long-term future” after June 30.  Nearly two-thirds of all Iraqis say they believe their country will be either somewhat or much better off five years from now than it is at present, “while just one Iraqi in 10 foresees the country being worse off five years hence.” Also worth noting: “the fact that these positive expectations were expressed by Shiites and Sunnis alike.” Only 12 percent say they expected Iraq to be worse off five years from now.

A public opinion poll of Iraqis done by Oxford Analytica (and touted by the U.S. government) showed similar results: a majority of Iraqis feel that they are better off today than they were a year ago.  And 70 percent said they think they'll be even better off in 2005.

Americans are a notoriously optimistic people. Are we exporting optimism with our fifths of Jack? As we prepare for this fall’s big vote, and amid otherwise gloomy current polling on Iraq, Americans at the least seem to share the Iraqis’ rosy view of the future.

A Washington Post poll in May found 62 percent hopeful about Iraq, but 67 percent worried.  Over half say they’re optimistic about the situation in Iraq. 

A May Time magazine poll found 60 percent say we can win the war in Iraq, and 52 percent say we will win the war in Iraq.

72 percent: Iraq's better off
A May Gallup poll found nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of us believing that Iraq is better off than before the war.

And an April Pew Research Center poll found over half (54 percent) rejecting the notion that Iraq would end up being another Vietnam — they think the U.S. will accomplish its goals in Iraq.

On the other hand, only 42 percent in a May Newsweek poll were confident that the United States will successfully establish a stable democratic form of government in Iraq over the long term. A month earlier, it was 50 percent.

In May 2004, the New York Times found two more Iraqis, this time in Baghdad, Ghazi Muklif Hamdan and Adel Abdul Mehdi:  “For people like Mr. Hamdan — and the numbers of those who share his opinion seem to be growing — pride and dignity trump any fears for the future.”  The Times continued: "For Americans grasping for a reason to stay optimistic about their experiment in Iraq, it may be this: There are still far more people in Mr. Mehdi's camp, people who are skeptical of, and maybe even hate, the Americans but see them as the only way to save themselves."

As the nation mourns the passing of President Reagan, this is a good time to reflect on, as the Times put it, Americans staying optimistic. President Reagan was a master of soaring, optimistic language.  A sample of his State of the Union addresses:

  • “Don't let anyone tell you that America's best days are behind her, that the American spirit has been vanquished. We've seen it triumph too often in our own lives to see it stop now.”
  • “America is too great for small dreams.”
  • “Let history say of us: These were golden years — when the American Revolution was reborn, when freedom gained new life, and America reached for her best."
  • “Future doesn't belong to the faint-hearted. It belongs to the brave.”

In 1995, USA Today reported on a plan written by longtime Reagan political adviser Stuart Spencer during the 1984 re-election campaign. The memo said, “The tone of the campaign should be upbeat, but not so confidently optimistic that we are vulnerable to the charge we believe things are better than facts warrant. The future vision the President established should include challenges, but reaffirm our faith in the country's ability to progress and meet those challenges."

President Bush's re-election campaign is trying to re-capture that spirit. A recent Bush-Cheney ’04 ad has President Bush saying this about the economy: “I'm optimistic about America because I believe in the people of America.” The ad accuses John Kerry of “pessimism.”

Meanwhile, there's Iraq. Looming large.

Iraq consistently ranks in the top two issues Americans will think about, or what they want the candidates to speak about, when considering their November presidential votes.  The outcome of the presidential race just might balance on which kind of voter shows up at the ballot booths — an optimist or a pessimist.

An April CBS News/New York Times poll found nearly half of us thinking that Iraqis were resentful of the U.S. being in Iraq right now. Tell that to the man the New York Times found in Najaf a year ago. Democracy, whiskey, and sexy. Now there’s a rosy scenario.

Howard Mortman is a producer for "Hardball with Chris Matthews."