For the American voter, it's looking increasingly like the November election comes down to this: Do you take what President Bush says on face value, or do you question it?
As it happens, it's the White House press corps' job to do the latter.
Yesterday in the Rose Garden, flanked by Iraqi interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, Bush insisted that things are headed in the right direction in Iraq and that sending mixed messages about the future American role in Iraq only makes the job harder.
But today's press coverage poses two serious questions: Isn't what Bush says about Iraq flatly at odds with reality? And isn't it getting awfully close to accusing the Democrats of aiding and abetting the enemy?
Rhetoric Pushes the Limits
Dana Milbank writes in a Washington Post news analysis: "President Bush and leading Republicans are increasingly charging that Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry and others in his party are giving comfort to terrorists and undermining the war in Iraq -- a line of attack that tests the conventional bounds of political rhetoric.
"Appearing in the Rose Garden yesterday with Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, Bush said Kerry's statements about Iraq 'can embolden an enemy.' After Kerry criticized Allawi's speech to Congress, Vice President Cheney tore into the Democratic nominee, calling him 'destructive' to the effort in Iraq and the struggle against terrorism. . . .
"Such accusations are not new to American politics, but the GOP's line of attack this year has been pervasive and high-level."
Here is the text of the news conference.
"You can embolden an enemy by sending a mixed message. You can dispirit the Iraqi people by sending mixed messages. You send the wrong message to our troops by sending mixed messages. That's why I will continue to lead with clarity and in a resolute way, because I understand the stakes," Bush said.
Here's the text of Bush's comments later in the day in Maine.
And here's the text of Cheney's comments in Missouri.
"John Kerry is trying to tear down all the good that has been accomplished, and his words are destructive to our effort in Iraq and in the global war on terror," Cheney said. "As Prime Minister Allawi said in his speech, and I quote, 'When political leaders sound the siren of defeatism in the face of terrorism, it only encourages more violence.' End quote."
The Allawi Endorsement
Robin Wright and Mike Allen write in The Washington Post: "Yesterday's visit by Allawi was a carefully orchestrated series of meetings that administration officials hope will ease concerns in Congress about the U.S. mission in Iraq and provide a vivid endorsement of Bush's Iraq strategy at a key moment in the presidential campaign."
Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "By the end of the day, it was clear that Dr. Allawi's visit to Washington, his first as Iraq's interim prime minister, was not simply a trip by a head of government but a politically charged moment in the presidential campaign.
" 'I stand here today as the prime minister of a country emerging finally from dark ages of violence, aggression, corruption and greed,' Dr. Allawi told a joint meeting of Congress before his appearance at the White House, using language that echoed Mr. Bush's campaign speeches about Iraq."
By nightfall, Allawi was facing the inevitable question.
Writes Bumiller: "Mr. Allawi appeared at an evening meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations, where he said in response to a question that 'I am a tool of nobody' and that he did not come to Washington to get 'involved in internal politics of the United States.' "
Anne E. Kornblut writes in the Boston Globe: "Apart from the heavy Iraqi accent, he sounded almost like a Republican official introducing President Bush at a campaign stop. But as interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi of Iraq toured the diplomatic circuit in Washington yesterday, praising Bush for 'standing firm' in the war on terror and admonishing Senator John F. Kerry as a 'doubter,' he took on a far more significant role in the presidential campaign than any American partisan ever could."
And indeed, Kornblut writes: "Kerry's decision to dispute Allawi triggered a fierce new round in the debate over Iraq itself, landing the interim leader squarely in the most heated fight of the presidential race."
John King told Aaron Brown on CNN: "Remarkable to see a foreign leader willingly take center stage in a central role in the presidential campaign debate here in this country."
Lynne Duke profiles "Bush's man in Baghdad" in The Washington Post.
"It would be unkind to portray Allawi as a prop or an exhibit, as in a court case. But several times, President Bush pointed to Allawi as if he were the proof of the policy's success.
"Did Bush really think elections were possible in four months' time?
" 'I do,' said Bush, "because the prime minister told me they are.' . . .
"When challenged about the optimistic picture the White House offers on Iraq, Bush said, pointing again, 'But I'd talk to this man. One reason I'm optimistic about our ability to get the job done is because I talk to the Iraqi prime minister.' "
Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "If Americans see Allawi as a credible messenger, that could boost Bush -- whose management of the war and the reconstruction of Iraq are under increasing fire from Kerry."
But Democrats, Brownstein writes, make the point "that Allawi had painted such a rosy picture of conditions in Iraq that he would have little credibility with Americans who are exposed daily to reports of car bombings, kidnappings and beheadings."
Fact Checking in Baghdad
Patrick J. McDonnell of the Los Angeles Times compares what they were saying at the White House with what he is seeing in Baghdad.
"In Washington, Allawi gave Congress an upbeat assessment Thursday, but the situation in Iraq is more complicated," McDonnell writes.
"Large swaths of Iraq remain outside the control of the interim government, major highways are fraught with attackers, and interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi -- along with the U.S. Embassy and much of the international community -- must conduct business in fortified compounds guarded by tanks, blast walls and barbed wire. . . .
"Allawi said it was 'a fact' that elections could be held in 15 of Iraq's 18 provinces 'tomorrow.' But few experts would agree. The consensus among poll-watchers is that holding nationwide elections by January, as scheduled, will be difficult.
"Apart from the widespread violence, the provinces lack electoral infrastructure -- which some view as a greater challenge than security.
"And critics say it is hard to argue that security is a problem in only three provinces of a nation where suicide bombers have struck from Basra in the south to Irbil in the north. . . .
"Allawi cited the renovation of schools and clinics and the restoration of many services as signs of progress. But many Iraqis note that the schools were open before Hussein's ouster, and power blackouts and gasoline shortages remain major irritants."
Tyler Marshall writes in the Los Angeles Times: "In his speech and later at a White House news conference with President Bush, Allawi repeatedly characterized the fight in Iraq as part of a larger, global war against international terrorism. . . .
" 'We are fighting for freedom and democracy -- ours and yours,' he said. 'For the struggle in Iraq today is not about the future of Iraq only, it's about the worldwide war between those who want to live in peace and freedom, and terrorists, terrorists who strike indiscriminately at soldiers, at civilians, as they did so tragically on 9/11 in America.' . . .
"At one point, Bush repeated his assertion of a connection between Iraq and the war on terrorism, then turned toward Allawi before adding: 'He believes the same thing. He understands what's going on there -- after all, he lives there.' "
Iraqis Not Quite As Pessimistic as We Are
Asked about polls showing that most Iraqis want U.S. troops out, Bush responded with a comment that may haunt him for a while.
"I saw a poll that said the right track/wrong track in Iraq was better than here in America," he said. "It's pretty darn strong. I mean, the people see a better future."
White House aides later cited a recent poll in Iraq conducted in late August that showed that more than 51 percent of Iraqis surveyed felt their country was headed in "the right direction," up slightly from a May/June poll.
Walter Shapiro writes in his USA Today column: "Standing with interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi in the White House Rose Garden, Bush seemed to be expressing the view that he found it inspiring that Iraqi citizens were more hopeful about the future of their country than were Americans when asked about the outlook here at home. But a Democrat could interpret the same statement as suggesting that Americans are so pessimistic about the future under Bush that even the responses from war-torn Iraq look better in comparison.
"In truth, the domestic right-track/wrong-track numbers give the president as much to brag about as troubled Amtrak.
"Eight different non-partisan national polls have asked variants of this question in September, and in seven of them, more voters have said America is hurtling down the wrong track."
No More Guessing
Bush yesterday acknowledged poor word choice Tuesday, when he brushed off the recent CIA report predicting serious troubles ahead for Iraq by saying the agency was "just guessing."
"Listen, the other day I was asked about the NIE, which is a National Intelligence Estimate. This is a report that talks about possibilities about what can happen in Iraq, not probabilities. I used an unfortunate word, 'guess.' I should have used, 'estimate.' "
Does this count? "And I think it's very important for the American President to mean what he says. That's why I understand that the enemy could misread what I say. That's why I try to be as clearly I can," Bush said.
And the president earned some more "sic"s from the White House steno pool yesterday: "Our strategy is to help the Iraqis help themselves. It's important that we train Iraqi troops. There are nearly 100,000 troops trained. The Afghan (sic) national army is a part of the army. By the way -- it's the Afghan [sic] national army that went into Najaf and did the work there." He meant Iraq's army, of course.
Not Answering the Question
As at most recent news conference, many of the questions from the press corps were confusing, multi-part expositions. Bush lost track of some and who can blame him?
But this one, from David Gregory of NBC News, was quite straightforward, but didn't get a direct answer -- even though he asked it twice.
"Q Mr. President, you say today that the work in Iraq is tough and will remain tough. And, yet, you travel this country and a central theme of your campaign is that America is safer because of the invasion of Iraq. Can you understand why Americans may not believe you?
"PRESIDENT BUSH: No. Anybody who says that we are safer with Saddam Hussein in power is wrong. . . .
"And I think it's a preposterous claim to say that America would be better off with Saddam Hussein in power. I certainly know that that's the case for America and I certainly know it's the case for the Iraqi people. . . .
"No, this world is better off with Saddam Hussein in prison.
"Q Sir, may I just follow, because I don't think you're really answering the question. I mean, I think you're responding to Senator Kerry, but there are beheadings regularly, the insurgent violence continues, and there are no weapons of mass destruction. My question is, can you understand that Americans may not believe you when you say that America is actually safer today?
"PRESIDENT BUSH: Imagine a world in which Saddam Hussein were still in power. This is a man who harbored terrorists -- Abu Abbas, Abu Nidal, Zarqawi. This is a man who was a sworn enemy of the United States of America. This is a man who used weapons of mass destruction. Going from tyranny to democracy is hard work, but I think the argument that says that Saddam Hussein -- if Saddam Hussein were still in power, we'd be better off is wrong."
So instead of answering, Bush used the question as an opportunity to hammer home the assertion that Kerry said America would be better off with Saddam Hussein in power. (Bush did it even more directly in Maine last night, saying: "Incredibly, this week, my opponent said he would prefer the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein to the situation in Iraq today.")
But that's a distortion of Kerry's positions -- as some media outlets made clear, at least the first time Bush said it. What Kerry actually said was: "Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who deserves his own special place in hell. But that was not, that was not, in and of itself, a reason to go to war."
Thomas Fitzgerald of Knight Ridder Newspapers looks at a linchpin of Bush's anti-Kerry rhetoric, and finds it incorrect.
Kerry never voted for the war, and his position on Iraq has remained consistent over time, Fitzgerald writes.
His "positions are not contradictory, but his attempts to explain the distinction between them are often complicated, and they have given President Bush an opening to caricature Kerry as a flip-flopper," Fitzgerald writes.
For instance, Bush repeatedly says Kerry "voted for the war." But what Kerry voted for was the congressional resolution that authorized President Bush to go to war.
"Bush promised at the time to build a broad coalition and go slow," Fitzgerald writes.
"In an Oct. 7, 2002, speech in Cincinnati, just four days before the Senate vote, the president pledged to exhaust other options and said that war was 'not inevitable.' He urged Congress to pass the resolution to give him leverage."
Bush Tax Cuts Pass
Jonathan Weisman writes for The Washington Post: "The House and the Senate overwhelmingly voted last night to extend three tax cuts aimed at the middle class, along with an array of business tax breaks, sending President Bush a $146 billion tax cut that would be his fourth in four years."
Here is Bush's statement on the passage.
Bush Visits Troops
Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush, after a campaign appearance in Bangor, held his plane on the tarmac when he heard an MD-11 carrying 292 Army reservists and National Guard members was about to refuel here. For the troops, grimly heading toward an 18-to-24-month assignment in Iraq, it was a welcome lift. For Bush, who has been accusing his Democratic presidential opponent, Sen. John F. Kerry, of demoralizing the troops in Iraq by criticizing the war effort, it was a chance to demonstrate his devotion to the troops."
Inoculated? Jodi Wilgoren
writes in the New York Times: "The war over who did what in the Vietnam era rages on in the 2004 campaign. But it has inflicted more wounds on the candidate who saw combat, Senator John Kerry, than the one who did not, President Bush, analysts across the political spectrum say.
"While Mr. Bush has faced questions for years over whether he fulfilled his National Guard service, the controversy over the authenticity of documents broadcast by CBS and questioning Mr. Bush's service record has largely inoculated the president from attacks on the issue, strategists say."
Meanwhile, Lisa Daniel writes in the Boston Globe: "Last week, speaking to the National Guard Association in Las Vegas, Bush said he was one of 19 presidents who served in the Guard and was proud to be among the 'many famous Americans in your ranks, including men named Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, and Truman.'
"But Bush's service in the Air National Guard stateside during the Vietnam War contrasts with the experience of his predecessors: Most served in combat, either in the Guard or regular units, and all entered the Guard or its historical equivalents when they were not an alternative to being drafted. None later faced questions, as Bush has, about whether they had fulfilled their commitments as citizen soldiers."
Bloomberg reports: "The index of leading U.S. economic indicators fell for a third consecutive month in August, the longest negative streak since early 2003, suggesting slower growth amid rising oil prices.
"The report Thursday by the New York-based Conference Board may weaken President Bush's claim that the economy is improving, although it does not suggest a recession is coming, analysts said."
It would be virtually a full-time job keeping up with all the presidential polls these days -- not to mention trying to make any sense of them.
What this column has generally focused on, anyway, is the presidential approval numbers. To keep an eye on them, I recommend Pollingreport.com.
Take a look today and here's what you see from the latest crop of polls:
Fox News/Opinion Dynamics: 50 percent approve, 45 percent disapprove.
CBS News: 48 percent approve, 44 percent disapprove.
NBC News/Wall Street Journal: 47 percent approve, 48 percent disapprove.
Zogby America: 47 percent excellent/good, 52 percent fair/poor.
Gallup: 52 percent approve; 46 percent disapprove.
Harris: 45 percent excellent/good, 54 percent fair/poor.
And here is a fascinating " scatter chart" showing the spread of approval numbers over time from Professor Pollkatz.
On the horse-race numbers, Slate is doing a nice job of aggregation. Or consult your friendly neighborhood political blogger.
H. Josef Hebert writes for the Associated Press: "After a day trip to woo voters in the swing state of Wisconsin, President Bush planned a weekend break from presidential campaigning to prepare for the first of three debates with Democratic rival John Kerry.
"Bush was attending campaign rallies in Janesville and Racine in pursuit of Wisconsin's 10 electoral votes. Afterward, he was headed to his Crawford, Texas, ranch to begin cramming for next Thursday's debate."
Bush started the day by swearing in Porter Goss as the new CIA director in an Oval Office ceremony.