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Bush Confounded by the 'Unacceptable'
President Wields Word More Freely as His Frustration Rises and His Influence Ebbs

By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 13, 2006

President Bush finds the world around him increasingly "unacceptable."

In speeches, statements and news conferences this year, the president has repeatedly declared a range of problems "unacceptable," including rising health costs, immigrants who live outside the law, North Korea's claimed nuclear test, genocide in Sudan and Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Bush's decision to lay down blunt new markers about the things he deems intolerable comes at an odd time, a phase of his presidency in which all manner of circumstances are not bending to his will: national security setbacks in North Korea and Iraq, a Congress that has shrugged its shoulders at his top domestic initiatives, a favorability rating mired below 40 percent.

But a survey of transcripts from Bush's public remarks over the past seven years shows the president's worsening political predicament has actually stoked, rather than diminished, his desire to proclaim what he cannot abide. Some presidential scholars and psychologists describe the trend as a signpost of Bush's rising frustration with his declining influence.

In the first nine months of this year, Bush declared more than twice as many events or outcomes "unacceptable" or "not acceptable" as he did in all of 2005, and nearly four times as many as he did in 2004. He is, in fact, at a presidential career high in denouncing events he considers intolerable. They number 37 so far this year, as opposed to five in 2003, 18 in 2002 and 14 in 2001.

Through a spokesman and then in a televised statement, he declared North Korea's claimed nuclear test "unacceptable" before and after it occurred Oct. 9. But he could also be heard on Jan. 9 lecturing students at an elementary school in Glen Burnie, Md., that their recent scores on math and reading proficiency tests were "unacceptable."

Having a president call something "unacceptable" is not the same as having him order U.S. troops into action. But foreign policy experts say the word is one of the strongest any leader can deploy, since it both broadcasts a national position and conveys an implicit threat to take action if his warnings are disregarded.

Bush's use of the term "reflects in some ways his frustration with a world that doesn't seem as amenable to his policies as he would like them to be," said Stanley A. Renshon, a political scientist at the City University of New York. Bush "has strong views; he believes in doing what is right. All of those things give an emotional force to his response" to events he often sees and describes without nuance.

Renshon, who wrote a mostly-favorable book in 2004 about Bush's psychology, said the president's declarations are in keeping with his apparent self-image as a Jeremiah, "railing against the tides" and saying what "people ought to be doing something about."

As such, charting the ebbs and flows of Bush's proclamations of "unacceptability" provides clues to trends in presidential irritations. It also demonstrates that Bush's most intense grievances -- like his attention -- have moved offshore, as evidenced this year by his eight declarations about "unacceptable" events in Iraq, and his 11 declarations about unacceptable behavior by Iran.

As a presidential candidate and in his early presidency, Bush was more apt to denounce domestic events. His assertions that school performance and achievement gaps between white and black students were unacceptable account for almost a third of his usages of that term since 2000.

Bush's targets expanded from 2003 to 2005 to include nine condemnations of "unacceptable" actions by Iraq and Iran, as well as the Social Security system and the administration's own response to the Katrina hurricane. This year, he has hurled the term "unacceptable" at actions by Iraqi insurgents and police, at supporters of a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, and at a U.S. law making the degrading treatment of detainees a war crime.

North Korea's planned firing of a missile was unacceptable, Bush said June 29; after Pyongyang fired several missiles July 4, Bush again labeled the action unacceptable on July 7 and July 10. He also deemed unacceptable the country's starving of its people, its use of concentration camps and its claimed nuclear test.

Using such a categorical term is not that surprising after a policy setback, according to Steven Kull, a political psychologist who directs the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes. Some people deal with failures, Kull said, "by intensifying an authoritarian posture and insisting that their preferences are equivalent to a moral imperative."

Asked at a news conference on Wednesday whether Washington risks looking feckless in making such categorical statements without taking decisive action, Bush said: "It's very important for the American people and North Korea to understand that that statement still stands. . . . I know this sounds [like] just saying it over and over again, but it's -- rhetoric and actions are all aimed at convincing others" to join Washington's effort to impede that country's weapons ambitions.

Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton -- often pilloried by Republicans as irresolute -- also labeled many events "unacceptable" or "not acceptable," particularly after the political tables turned against him. When Democrats controlled Congress in 1994, for example, he used those terms four times, according to transcripts of his public comments. In 1995, after his party lost control of both houses, Clinton used the terms 20 times; his annual usages thereafter fluctuated between eight and 22, but they totaled only 86 percent of Bush's usage in a comparable six-year period.

Clinton's peeves were different from Bush's, and a quarter of his uses of the "unacceptable" label after 2004 were aimed at providing leverage in his budget battles with the Republican-led Congress. Clinton also used the label in denouncing poverty, crime, discrimination against women, inadequate health care, school violence, racial disparities and the actions of medical insurance companies. Abroad, he labeled as unacceptable the behavior of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein unacceptable on four occasions.

Moisés Naím, the editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine, said there is a relationship between "how strident and extreme" the language of many leaders is and how limited their options are. For Bush, Naím said, "this comes at a time when the world is convinced he is weaker than ever."

Many foreigners think the United States is losing Iraq and are no longer in awe of U.S. military might, Naím said, and at home, Bush is so weak that Republican candidates are wary of appearing with him. "The world has noticed," Naím said. "What is happening is that a lot that was deemed unacceptable [by Bush] now has become normal and tolerable."

Bush's proclamations are not the only rhetorical evidence of his mounting frustrations. One of his favorite verbal tics has long been to instruct audiences bluntly to "listen" to what he is about to say, as in "Listen, America is respected" (Aug. 30) or "Listen, this economy is good" (May 24). This year, he made that request more often than he did in a comparable portion of 2005, a sign that he hasn't given up hope it might work.

Research director Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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