The Commander in Speech

He was working it, but did he own it?
He was working it, but did he own it? (Pool Photo By Kevin Dietsch Via Getty Images)
By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, September 10, 2008

"The president," Bob Woodward writes in his new book, "talked irritably of how he believed there was an 'elite' class in America that thought he could do nothing right."

The disdain of the elite class must be painful for the president, who rose from the humble origins of Andover, Yale, Kennebunkport and the Texas Rangers owner's box. But he can take solace in the knowledge that his problem isn't with the elites; it's with pretty much the entire country.

As Woodward points out in "The War Within," when the administration started planning the Iraq "surge" in August 2006, a Gallup poll showed that 56 percent of the country thought the Iraq war was a mistake, and President Bush's approval rating was 37 percent. Two years later, even Barack Obama says the troop increase has succeeded beyond anybody's "wildest dreams." And what says the latest Gallup poll? Fifty-eight percent of Americans think the Iraq war was a mistake. Bush's approval rating is down to 33 percent.

For Bush, the solution was obvious: Give another chest-thumping victory speech.

And so the White House assembled a few hundred military officers -- people required to rise and salute when the president speaks -- at Fort McNair in Southwest Washington yesterday to hear the president give the latest version of a Mission Accomplished speech. The audience from the National Defense University sat quietly and obediently in their green, olive, white and blue uniforms, as Bush spoke of a "moment of success in the war on terror."

Under the surge, he said, "American forces systematically dismantled al-Qaeda control" in Anbar province. Across Iraq, "civilian deaths are down, sectarian killings are down, suicide bombings are down, and normal life is returning."

"While the enemy in Iraq is dangerous, we have seized the offensive," Bush announced.

It was a return to the Bush bravado of old. In his book, Woodward noted that Bush had retreated from words such as "winning" and "victory." But at Fort McNair yesterday, Bush was again talking about Iraqi forces capable of "winning the fight" and troops coming home from Iraq "in victory."

The president was crowing -- but was anybody listening?

Bush got to his payoff line -- "the Joint Chiefs of Staff have recommended that we move forward with additional force reductions, and I agree" -- but only one guy near the back of the room clapped. He stopped quickly when he realized nobody was joining him.

There was a time, not long ago, when such a major presidential speech (a reduction of 8,000 troops in Iraq and the promise of more) would draw 15 television cameras; yesterday there appeared to be only four, including Japan's NHK. The hosts set aside 24 seats for reporters, but there appeared to be only three reporters in the press section. Only two members of Congress -- both backbench House Republicans -- showed up for the talk. And Marine Lt. Gen. Frances Wilson, the university president, was comically brief in her introduction. She opened by saying she was "honored to welcome our commander in chief," then immediately closed by adding "without any further ado, the president of the United States."

"Thank you, General, for your kind and short introduction," Bush replied.

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