The State of The President: Beleaguered

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 24, 2007

President Bush used his State of the Union address last night to try to revive his presidency against what may be the greatest odds any chief executive has faced in a generation.

Other presidents have encountered difficult moments and have been dealt electoral setbacks, but few have faced the combination of obstacles that now confront this White House. Bush arrived at the Capitol at his lowest point in public-opinion polls, facing new Democratic majorities in the House and Senate and lame-duck status as attention turns rapidly toward a 2008 presidential campaign that will choose his successor.

Bush's problems all stem from the same issue. The public has lost confidence in his Iraq war policy, and, in the face of evidence that Americans are looking for a change in course, the president has chosen with his new plan to deploy additional troops to the conflict -- a direction the public overwhelmingly opposes.

But his response last night was a speech that was very much in keeping with the style of leadership he has demonstrated repeatedly in office. If he was humbler in tone and rhetorically generous to his Democratic opponents in calling for cooperation, he was anything but defensive.

"This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we're in," Bush said. "Every one of us wishes this war were over and won. Yet it would not be like us to leave our promises unkept, our friends abandoned and our own security at risk. Ladies and gentlemen: On this day, at this hour, it is still within our power to shape the outcome of this battle. Let us find our resolve and turn events toward victory."

Last night's address was two speeches in one. Bush plowed through the domestic initiatives with little emotion, but suddenly came alive when he turned his attention to Iraq and terrorism, as passionate and determined as always when he speaks about the war that has defined his presidency.

The atmosphere in the House chamber also changed, signifying the divisions over the president's Iraq policy. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who had basked in Bush's praise as the nation's first female speaker at the beginning of the speech, sat stony-faced as he exhorted the country to follow his lead in Iraq. As the president asked for a chance to make his Iraq policy work, Republicans leaped to applaud. Pelosi and the Democrats remained seated.

There were three underlying messages in the president's address. The first was a familiar argument about the terrorist threat and plea for patience on Iraq, a chord struck earlier in the day by Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the expected new commander of U.S. forces there. Although about two in three Americans disagree with the decision to send more troops to Iraq and members of Congress are preparing nonbinding resolutions to declare their opposition, Bush asked for time to show that the strategy can succeed.

He recalled that the country was largely united at the time of the invasion in 2003 and acknowledged the divisions that have emerged since. But he argued that whatever motivated members of Congress at the time of the invasion, there was a consensus that the United States must win the war.

Bush may have been speaking into the void. Over the past six months, there has been a critical turn in public opinion. Long ago, a majority of Americans concluded that the president's decision to go to war was a mistake. The administration tried to shrug that off by focusing attention on the consequences of failure, believing that as long as Americans saw some chance for success they would continue to support the mission.

Today Bush has lost that battle for public opinion as well. NBC News-Wall Street Journal polls have tracked public confidence on the question of whether there will be a successful conclusion in Iraq. A year ago, the public was mildly pessimistic, with 41 percent saying they had confidence in a successful outcome and 49 percent saying they did not. Attitudes remained generally in that range throughout the summer, but last fall they took a sharp negative turn. By October, 27 percent saw hope for a successful conclusion, and 61 percent did not. In December, attitudes turned even more sour, with a 50-point gap between those who believe the United States can win and those who doubt there can be a successful conclusion.

"The American public thinks it's time to start wrapping up," said Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who jointly conducts the poll with Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart. "The president's doing something that is very difficult. It's the core of presidential leadership, and that is to stick to what he believes is the right policy in the face of an American public that has decided they disagree with him. . . . The president has very little capacity to change their mind."

The second message from the president was a call for bipartisan cooperation, particularly on domestic issues such as budget deficits, earmarks, immigration, energy, health care and education.

"We are not the first to come here with government divided and uncertainty in the air," Bush said. "Like many before us, we can work through our differences and achieve big things for the American people. Our citizens don't much care which side of the aisle we sit on -- as long as we are willing to cross that aisle when there is work to be done."

Administration officials expressed optimism yesterday that they can reach agreement with the Democrats in Congress on the path to a balanced budget, on the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind education law and on some elements of a strategy to wean the nation off imported oil.

But even as Bush was calling for bipartisan cooperation, Democrats were seeking coalitions with Republicans to advance their own agenda. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will begin working this morning on a resolution opposing Bush's Iraq plan, a measure that has the support of a growing number of Republican senators. In the House, Democrats completed work on the first six items of their agenda last week, attracting a substantial number of Republicans to several of the measures.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said yesterday that Bush so far has shown no evidence of wanting real compromise with Democrats on issues such as Iraq and health care.

"This year, I don't think the change is the president, who is staying in his ideological tower, but Republicans in the Senate, who have said we just can't keep following this president," he said. "That's where you will see the bipartisanship."

A Republican strategist, asked not to be identified in order to speak freely about the administration's problems, said Democrats are not in any mood to be generous to Bush. Referring to the president's approval rating, he said, "When you're sitting at 35 and you're telling them what to do after they won an election, they've got to chuckle."

Bush's third message last night was perhaps the most robust domestic agenda of his presidency, a way of saying to those who are ready to write him off that he still has the power of the bully pulpit to inject ideas into the national debate and force others to react to them. It was a message that said he should not be regarded as a lame duck.

"Either we're going to see progress on that agenda or it will be a banner to which our allies on the Hill, Republican or Democrat, can repair," a senior White House official said.

Even Republicans outside the White House questioned that optimism. "My view is that Bush's speech tonight, especially the domestic policy side, is an attempt to set the agenda for the 2008 Republican primaries, not for the 2007 Congress," said Daniel Casse, a strategist and writer. "I think their motivation is to make sure candidates in '08 are running on ideas established by George Bush, not running away from them."

Bush is by nature a competitor, and the State of the Union address reminded the country that he will continue to push his ideas even in the face of enormous public skepticism. Given the political balance in Congress, the chances of him getting his way domestically are slender. Prospects in Iraq appear even more difficult.

That is why, though he certainly did not intend to steal a page from Democratic Sen. Barack Obama's best-selling book, his speech last night may be remembered as "the audacity of hope."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company