President Tries to Win Over a War-Weary Nation

By Dan Balz and Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 12, 2006

President Bush's Oval Office speech last night was the culmination of two weeks of efforts to rally the nation behind his policies and presidency by summoning the memory of Sept. 11, 2001. Five years after that indelible day, however, this president's capacity to move the public is severely diminished.

There were echoes of the language and logic Bush invoked five years ago when he united a stricken nation looking to him for both comfort and leadership. But he was speaking to a different nation last night.

Setbacks in Iraq have soured a majority of Americans on that mission. Falsely optimistic predictions of progress have undermined the administration's credibility. A majority of Americans question fundamental elements of the president's argument, including his contention that Iraq is the central front in the campaign against terrorism.

Cumulatively, it leaves decidedly uncertain whether this week's flood of rhetoric and remembrance can alter Bush's perilous circumstances -- at a critical moment for the future of the Iraq mission and the president's own domestic standing 56 days before the midterm elections.

"The power of his rhetoric is in marked decline, and that's no reflection on the quality of what he says, which is still very high," said Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a neoconservative scholar who has been sympathetic to Bush's anti-terrorism policies. "There's a desire in the country for more deeds, not more words. . . . We are losing a war right now, and there is no way to get around that."

Three previous times in the past 18 months, as public opinion has slipped, White House officials have announced that Bush would embark on a renewed effort to explain and defend his Iraq and anti-terrorism policies. None produced a lasting positive effect on how Americans view either the president or his policies.

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, provided Bush with many of the rhetorical high notes of his administration, from his bullhorn exhortation atop the rubble of Ground Zero three days after the attacks to the stern eloquence of his speech to Congress six days later in which he put the nation on the road to war.

With his five speeches in the past two weeks, including last night's, Bush has sought to use the fifth anniversary of those attacks to put the war in Iraq in a broader and more politically viable context while offering his interpretation of where the country stands in its long-term confrontation with terrorism.

White House officials are hopeful that the round of speeches will have some impact on moving public opinion. They said that Bush has presented an enormous amount of information and background about Iraq and terrorism, much of which they believe will come as news to many Americans with only a general impression of events.

"I am not so sure that the views [about the Iraq war and terrorism] are chiseled in stone," said White House press secretary Tony Snow. "There's been a lot of debate -- one side that may not have been fully represented in ours. . . . It seems that on a lot of things, people may not have fully understood the approach the president took and his thinking."

Both Snow and White House counselor Dan Bartlett singled out the effort to quote the terrorists' own words as a tactic they hope will break through to ordinary Americans who may not be aware of the terrorists' aims. "We may be having a debate in this country about whether Iraq is part of the war on terrorism, but our enemies believe it is," Bartlett said. "We were trying to transcend the political debate in Washington by letting the words of the enemies speak for themselves."

Polls show how the political ground has shifted over time. The Pew Research Center began charting early in Bush's presidency public confidence in his leadership. Bush enjoyed a solid majority until the summer of 2005, when the public was roughly divided. In February 2001, 60 percent of Americans said they saw Bush as trustworthy, compared with just 28 percent who did not. By last month, a majority, 52 percent, said they did not believe he was trustworthy.

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