The debate over future Iraq war policy took center stage in Washington and in the national news last week. However, public interest in the story was modest at best as Americans expressed frustration with the quality of the debate and the clarity of the competing arguments. Only 18% of the public paid very close attention to the debate over U.S. policy in Iraq, and 7% said it was the single news story they followed more closely than any other last week. In contrast, the policy debate was the most heavily covered news story of the week, filling up 15% of the overall newshole. In spite of the media's focus on the policy debate, the public remains more interested in the events on the ground in Iraq.
The public's lack of engagement in the policy debate may be related to a sense of frustration about how the debate has been framed. Among those who have been paying at least some attention to news about Iraq policy, less than one-third (32%) think that news organizations are doing an excellent or good job explaining the current debate over the war funding bill. Nearly two-thirds (64%) say news organizations are doing only a fair or poor job explaining the debate.
George Bush and the Democratic leaders in Congress receive equally low marks from the public for framing their respective positions on the war funding bill. Only 34% of those who are following the policy debate say Bush has done an excellent or good job explaining his position on the war funding bill, while 64% say he has done a fair or poor job. The Democratic leaders in Congress get only slightly higher ratings: 39% say they've done an excellent or good job explaining their position on the bill, and 57% say they've done a fair or poor job.
Not surprisingly, there are sharp partisan differences on these ratings, with Republicans more likely to praise Bush and Democrats more supportive of their leadership in Congress. Even given these predictable party gaps, sizeable minorities of Republicans and Democrats fault their own party for its lack of clarity in the debate. More than four-in-ten Republicans (41%) who are paying at least some attention to the Iraq policy debate say Bush has done a fair or poor job explaining his position on the war funding bill, and 40% of Democrats give their party leaders in Congress similarly low marks. Independents are especially critical of both parties: 65% say Bush has done a fair or poor job explaining his position and nearly as many (63%) say the Democratic leaders have done a fair or poor job.
Democrats have the most positive view of how the media has done in explaining the war funding debate. Among those who are following the issue, 43% of Democrats say the media has done an excellent or good job, compared to 28% of Republicans and 25% of Independents.
Read the full News Interest Index on the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press Web site.