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President Shifts Argument, Catches Critics Off Guard

By Michael Abramowitz and Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 7, 2006

With a series of forceful speeches on terrorism and a dramatic announcement that he has sent top-tier terrorism suspects to the Guantanamo Bay prison, President Bush this week has demonstrated anew the power of even a weakened commander in chief to set the terms of national debate.

All week, the White House has made plain its desire to refocus the attention of voters this fall away from a troubled and unpopular war in Iraq in favor of Bush's vision of a worldwide struggle against Islamic radicalism and terrorism. Yesterday, Bush sought to turn a legal defeat at the Supreme Court into a political opportunity.

By challenging Congress to immediately give the administration authority to try notorious al-Qaeda figures such as Khalid Sheik Mohammed by military commissions, he shifted the argument with Democratic critics of national security policies and competence. As Bush framed the choice, anyone against his proposal would be denying him necessary tools to protect American security.

His success in catching much of Washington by surprise showed that a president who polls show has his political back to the wall still has formidable tools: the ability to make well-timed course corrections on policy, dominate the news and shape the capital's agenda in the weeks before Election Day.

Bush's moves were partly a concession to those who have complained about secret CIA prisons abroad. Even as he acknowledged the existence of the prison program for the first time, Bush could argue that there are no terrorism suspects now in the CIA program.

At the same time, Bush sought to redefine the issue of CIA detentions from one of civil liberties to one of protecting Americans. He asserted that interrogators had reaped an intelligence bonanza from the questioning of top al-Qaeda leaders such as Mohammed -- the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- and Osama bin Laden deputy Abu Zubaida, and insisted Congress pass a law that would allow such interrogations to continue without legal jeopardy to soldiers and intelligence officers.

"We need to ensure that those questioning terrorists can continue to do everything within the limits of the law to get information that can save American lives," he said in his speech in the East Room of the White House.

After months of mostly ineffectual efforts to reverse Bush's year-long decline in public approval -- driven in large measure by growing impatience with the Iraq war -- the White House in recent days has launched an aggressive campaign to use the five-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks to regain momentum and prevent GOP congressional majorities from being routed this fall. Even Democratic aides on Capitol Hill said Bush's tactics this week have diminished their party's efforts to highlight the problems in Iraq and motivate an anti-Republican vote Nov. 7.

Bush's speech took place moments before the Senate launched a lengthy debate on a Democratic proposal urging the president to fire Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld as a step toward "a change of course" in Iraq. GOP senators denounced the resolution as partisan posturing, and prevented it from coming to a vote by ruling it not germane to the military spending bill on the Senate floor, and the president's announcement immediately overshadowed the debate.

The midterm elections may well hinge on whether Bush's new move proves effective. There is reason for skepticism. This is already the White House's third effort in the past year to reshape the Iraq debate with new rhetoric.

"This is a political offensive above all, and it's not clear it will work," said Jeremy Rosner, a top Democratic pollster who formerly worked on the Clinton National Security Council staff. "It is elevating the prominence of Iraq, which all polls show has turned unpopular. . . . What they lack still is any signal that they have a way forward. They are ratcheting up the rhetoric without giving voters any sense of how they want to get out of this mess."

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said the president is "desperately trying to use words and make connections that will somehow convince people that what they're seeing and hearing isn't reality." He is "trying to connect it to World War II rather than Vietnam, for example." The tactic will not work, Stabenow predicted, because "the American people understand that there have been missteps, misjudgments" that have had tragic consequences.

White House officials have rejected the idea that the ongoing series of speeches are primarily political in nature, saying Bush has wanted to set the war in Iraq in proper context. White House counselor Dan Bartlett said the president has been anxious to help the public understand the scenes of violence from Lebanon and Iraq this past summer. But he also said the administration was determined to answer Democratic charges. "It is very important to define the terms of the debate and not be defined by others," Bartlett said. "Sometimes in the past charges that go unanswered, however egregious they may be, can then become conventional wisdom."

This mind-set was behind an unusual White House public relations gambit yesterday, which saw the White House release a letter from Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten, who seldom speaks in public, responding to Democratic Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) criticizing the administration's Iraq policy this week. Bolten essentially said that most of Reid's suggestions for changing policy in Iraq were already being pursued by the administration.

Such letters have heartened Republicans looking for more energetic leadership from the White House. "The Democrats are trying to politicize the war on terror," said Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). "They are the ones who chose to make this a political issue, and we said, 'Okay, we'll engage.' "

Vin Weber, a top GOP strategist and lobbyist, said the White House "has substantially stepped up its effort to win the argument in the country about the war on terror." He contrasted the intensity of the involvement of Bolten and White House press secretary Tony Snow with their predecessors in framing the new message. He said it was a mistake to view the ongoing speeches solely from a political perspective, but he said Republicans could eventually benefit.

"I think the Democrats have been a little seduced by polls showing that Iraq is a big issue," he said, asserting that national security remains an issue that will favor Republicans. "I would not want to be the opposition party challenging the commander in chief in a fundamental way going into the election."

But Bill Galston, a Democratic analyst from the centrist wing of his party, was skeptical that the president would have much success changing voters' negative impressions of the war in Iraq. "If the facts on the ground are bad enough at home and abroad, then the most artful presidential framing will not alter people's judgments, and that's where I think people are," said Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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