By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
While the House of Representatives debated weighty matters of war and peace yesterday, President Bush headed to the YMCA.
In a brightly lighted basement gym, he visited children bending paperclips into different shapes and urged Americans to volunteer as mentors. He talked not of armies in Iraq but of "armies of compassion" at home. Even the kids seemed confused. One asked why he came. "I came to see you," the president responded. As the cameras clicked away, a 7-year-old boy made peace signs. "Put your hands down," Bush chided playfully.
That was the most extensive case made yesterday by the commander in chief against the growing antiwar sentiment gripping Congress and the nation. As lawmakers joust over the wisdom of his decision to send 21,500 more U.S. troops to Iraq, Bush is publicly ignoring the clash -- a display that is part strategy and part concession to reality.
By not engaging in the debate, Bush sends the signal that it does not matter to him what Congress says in a nonbinding resolution, hoping to minimize the impact of what the White House considers the inevitable outcome. And according to strategists in both parties, he has limited influence on Capitol Hill at this point, even among fellow Republicans.
Bush has opted to focus on policies and issues that may seem small by comparison. In recent weeks, he has participated in events focused on childhood obesity and national parks. He hosted photo opportunities with last year's Stanley Cup and NASCAR champions. And this week, he is meeting with three foreign heads of state -- the presidents of Lithuania, Liberia and Panama -- representing a combined population smaller than that of Michigan.
"I don't think he's going to be able to change the subject," said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who supports the troop increase as a last chance to turn around the situation in Iraq. "The subject of politics right now is Iraq. Every single person out there running for president, Republican or Democrat, is going to be talking about it. The White House needs to be talking about it every day, too."
Bush has scheduled one speech this week on the war on terror. It is set for Thursday at the American Enterprise Institute, and he will address Iraq at that time. But he made clear in an interview with C-SPAN this week that he does not see a need to talk about Iraq every day. And given that a resolution seems likely to pass, the White House has concluded that maybe it is good for lawmakers to vent frustration in a political but intangible way.
White House press secretary Tony Snow shrugged his shoulders when asked at his daily briefing if the president's team is working to stop the House resolution. "No," Snow said. "I mean, we've made our views known in terms of what people have to keep in mind. But members of the House and members of the Senate have the freedom to go ahead and write their resolutions and do what they want with them. The one thing we do expect is we do expect those who say they're going to support the troops to support the troops."
That suggests the White House is holding back for what could be the more significant battle if Democrats try to limit funding for the troop increase or require forces to be withdrawn by next year, as proposed by Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), a Democratic presidential candidate. "They seem to be saving their energy for that," said Robert Walker, a Republican lobbyist and former congressman. Allowing the current debate to become "a real confrontation between the House of Representatives and the White House on something that has no real impact, that serves the Democrats' purposes, not his," he said.
A USA Today-Gallup Poll released yesterday found that Americans are eager for stronger action than the House is now contemplating. Although 51 percent support a nonbinding resolution condemning the troop increase, 57 percent want a cap on troop levels and 63 percent favor a timetable to withdraw all U.S. forces by the end of the year. At the same time, cutting funding is more controversial, with 58 percent against denying money for the additional forces Bush wants.
"He's in real trouble in many ways," said Tom Andrews, a former Democratic congressman from Maine who now serves as national director of a coalition called Win Without War. Andrews suggested that the president is trying to ignore the current debate "because perhaps if too much attention is paid to it, it will be another step toward the end of his policy."
Bush's newfound zeal for small-bore initiatives is reminiscent of President Clinton's tactical switch after his party's midterm congressional election defeat in 1994. Clinton tacked against an opposition Congress by turning to micro-policies that polled well with the public, such as school uniforms and mobile phones for neighborhood-watch programs.
Gene Sperling, a top adviser to Clinton, said those policies had meaning. "If you can show that you are waking up every day focused on getting things done, even modest measures that people really care about outside the Beltway, it can be a positive sign," he said. "If it just looks like you're trying to change the subject and do symbolic things, it doesn't work."
Bush tested that thesis by navigating his motorcade across a snowy city to the YMCA Anthony Bowen Center. Protesters outside held up signs with messages such as "Bush Lied" and "Peace Surge."
"The reason I'm here is that we're heralding volunteerism in America," Bush said. "No better place to come where volunteers are doing their work."
He observed four activity stations where youngsters were being guided by adult mentors, including one station where they disemboweled a computer. As Bush chatted with some children, other youngsters were overheard by a pool reporter.
"He's my favorite president," one said.
"My favorite president is President Obama," another replied.
"He's the first black president."