Is Bush Backfiring?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, June 20, 2005 11:45 AM

When the president of the United States says jump, people jump.

But with President Bush, it seems like more and more often they're jumping in the opposite direction.

Polls show that all of Bush's talk about Social Security has caught the public's attention -- except that the more they hear about his proposals, the less they like them.

Bush's increasing insistence that things are going well in Iraq has been accompanied by a dramatic loss of support for the war.

And the latest backfire would appear to be in Iran, in response to Bush's denunciation last week of Iranian elections as a sham.

Brian Murphy writes for the Associated Press: "Iran's spy chief used just two words to respond to White House ridicule of last week's presidential election: 'Thank you.' His sarcasm was barely hidden. The backfire on Washington was more evident.

"The sharp barbs from President Bush were widely seen in Iran as damaging to pro-reform groups because the comments appeared to have boosted turnout among hard-liners in Friday's election -- with the result being that an ultraconservative now is in a two-way showdown for the presidency."

Losing His Touch

The consensus view in the press today is clear: Bush is losing his touch.

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "Five months after President Bush was sworn in for another four years, his political authority appears to be ebbing, both within his own party, where members of Congress are increasingly if sporadically going their own way, and among Democrats, who have discovered that they pay little or no price for defying him. . . .

"The cumulative effect of his difficulties in the last few months has been to pierce the sense of dominance that he sought to project after his re-election and to heighten concerns among Republicans in Congress that voters will hold them, as the party in power, responsible for failure to address the issues of most concern to the public."

Steve Holland writes for Reuters: "Five months after starting his second term with high hopes, President Bush is struggling to regain the confidence of Americans concerned about the direction of the Iraq war and the U.S. economy."

Marc Sandalow writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "Bloggers are circulating articles of impeachment. Democrats are demanding an exit strategy from Iraq. And even a few Republicans are openly questioning President Bush's execution of the war on terror.

"As the reports of death and carnage entered their 28th month, Bush is faced with a mounting challenge to rally Americans behind the mission, and to make sure that concerns about his wartime leadership do not irreparably damage the rest of his agenda. His opponents sense an opportunity to pressure the administration into a new direction in Iraq, or at least inflict some political damage to their nemesis."

More and more, his friends are deserting him. Julie Hirschfeld Davis writes in the Baltimore Sun: "President Bush, working to gain support for his ambitious domestic agenda, is encountering increasing resistance from an unlikely place: American business, a usually reliable ally."

Linda Feldmann writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "As President Bush's ambitious agenda sags under the weight of public skepticism -- and a growing willingness among some Republicans to break ranks -- political observers would love nothing more than to be the proverbial fly on the wall in the Oval Office.

"Of course, those who know what Bush and his advisers are saying to each other aren't talking."

A key test may come on Tuesday, when the 55 Republican senators hold their weekly policy luncheon in unusual surroundings. They've all been invited over to the East Wing's opulent state dining room.

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write in Newsweek: "Along with lunch, the restive Republican majority can expect the president's staple diet of Social Security and Iraq. Just six weeks before Congress adjourns for the summer, Bush's message is simple: don't go wobbly. Yet for some of his supporters who are seeking an exit strategy at home and overseas, the prospect of another presidential pep talk isn't enough."

Turning Point

In fact, there are at least two for whom a pep talk won't be nearly enough.

Tim Ahmann writes for Reuters: "President Bush needs to tell Americans the nation faces 'a long, hard slog' in Iraq, a key Republican senator said on Sunday, and another said the White House was 'disconnected from reality' in its optimism over the war.

" 'Too often we've been told and the American people have been told that we're at a turning point,' Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said on NBC's ' Meet the Press .' "

U.S. News's Kevin Whitelaw spoke to Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel: " 'Things aren't getting better; they're getting worse. The White House is completely disconnected from reality,' Hagel tells U.S. News. 'It's like they're just making it up as they go along. The reality is that we're losing in Iraq.' "

Whitelaw concludes that "the White House has reason to worry that the assortment of critiques of Bush's wartime performance may be approaching a tipping point."

The PR Blitz Begins

Agence France Presse reports: "President George W. Bush, wounded by slumping approval ratings and growing worries about Iraq, has launched a public relations offensive to defend the war amid mounting calls for calling US troops home. . . .

"Bush began his pitch Saturday during his weekly national radio address, telling the US public the country went to war because the United States was attacked on September 11, 2001."

Here's the text of his radio address: "We went to war because we were attacked, and we are at war today because there are still people out there who want to harm our country and hurt our citizens," Bush said. "Some may disagree with my decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power, but all of us can agree that the world's terrorists have now made Iraq a central front in the war on terror. . . .

"Our troops are fighting these terrorists in Iraq so you will not have to face them here at home."

So, at least judging from the radio address, it sounds like Bush will not be making concessions such as those suggested by McCain and Hagel. For instance, he won't be acknowledging that there could be some legitimate reasons for people to be concerned about his policies. He won't be acknowledging the need for a long, hard slog in Iraq.

Rather, it sounds like his main strategy will be to try to once again link the Iraq war with the Sept. 11 attacks.

But will it work? Or will it backfire?

That may depend in part on whether the press simply acts as his megaphone -- or routinely notes that the administration has shown no direct connection between Iraq and Sept. 11 and that critics argue there is considerable evidence that the war in Iraq was an enormous setback to the war on terror.

Downing Street Memo Watch

Thomas Wagner weighs in with the Associated Press's belated take on the Downing Street memos: "When Prime Minister Tony Blair's chief foreign policy adviser dined with Condoleezza Rice six months after Sept. 11, the then-U.S. national security adviser didn't want to discuss Osama bin Laden or al-Qaida. She wanted to talk about 'regime change' in Iraq, setting the stage for the U.S.-led invasion more than a year later.

"President Bush wanted Blair's support, but British officials worried the White House was rushing to war, according to a series of leaked secret Downing Street memos that have renewed questions and debate about Washington's motives for ousting Saddam Hussein."

When I first wrote at length about the Downing Street memo more than a month ago , I noted that Bush critic Mark Danner had just written a provocative exegesis of the memo in the New York Review of Books, inciting the intellectual left.

Danner has a follow-up in this week's New York Review of Books, Web-published at TomDispatch.com (scroll down to "Why the Memos Matter.")

This time, Danner describes the narrative of the "frozen scandal." It goes like this: "A story is told the first time but hardly acknowledged . . . , largely because the broader story the government is telling drowns it out. When the story is later confirmed by official documents, in this case the Downing Street memorandum, the documents are largely dismissed because they contain 'nothing new.' "

As for the public, he writes: "American citizens find themselves on a very peculiar road, stumbling blindly through a dark wood. Having had before the war rather clear evidence that the Bush administration had decided to go to war even as it was claiming it was trying to avert war, we are now confronted with an escalating series of 'disclosures' proving that the original story, despite the broad unwillingness to accept it, was in fact true."

Gitmo Watch

Carol Rosenberg writes in the Miami Herald: "The Pentagon capped a week of intense debate on the future of its prison for terrorism suspects Friday with an announcement that Vice President Dick Cheney's old firm will build a new, $30 million 220-cell prison block at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

"Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root received the work under a $500 million Navy contract from July 2004, according to a Defense Department contract announcement e-mailed to The Herald on Friday."

Lionel Barber and Paul Taylor write in the Financial Times about their interview with former president Bill Clinton, "the most prominent figure so far to add his voice to criticisms of the US prison camp at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba.

"In an interview with the Financial Times, the former president called for the camp, set up to hold suspected terrorists, to 'be closed down or cleaned up'."

Here is the transcript of the interview. Said Clinton: "I ask all Americans and all free people always to think about this, when you ask yourself, 'Should we do this or not?' Because you can always say, 'If I put the clamps down harder I'll be more secure' -- on any issue.

"Here's the question you should ask yourself, 'If we do this thing, whatever it is, will it change the fundamental character of my country?' If the answer is yes, you've already given the terrorists a profound victory, so at all costs we should try to say 'No. We will not do anything that changes the fundamental character of our country.' "

The Supreme Battle

Peter Baker writes in the Washington Post: "President Bush's advisers are focusing their search for a new Supreme Court justice on a trio of candidates who could present the president with a choice that would help shape his legacy -- pick a reliable conservative to anchor the court for decades or go for history by naming the first Hispanic chief justice at the risk of alienating his base. . . .

"Bush and his inner circle have had tightly held deliberations and no one can say for sure whom he might pick for chief justice, but outside advisers to the White House believe the main candidates are federal appeals Judges John G. Roberts and J. Michael Luttig and possibly Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales."

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "At the White House, the plan is to run the campaign for Mr. Bush's Supreme Court nominee out of the office of Harriet Miers, the low-profile White House counsel, once described by Mr. Bush as 'a pit bull in Size 6 shoes.' Ms. Miers will get a heavy assist from the Office of Legal Policy at the Department of Justice, where the attorney general, Alberto R. Gonzales, has himself been widely mentioned as a candidate for the Supreme Court, although probably not for the first vacancy under Mr. Bush."

Bolton Watch

Douglass K. Daniel writes for the Associated Press: "Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is keeping open the possibility that President Bush will bypass the Senate to get John R. Bolton installed as U.N. ambassador temporarily if Democrats persist in holding up a confirmation vote."

Today's Calendar

AFP reports: "President George W. Bush meets with top officials of a deeply troubled European Union as his administration underscores its desire to boost transatlantic cooperation on international affairs."

Bush will hold a "press availability" with the EU leaders at 1:15 p.m. ET.

Medicare Watch

Bush flew all the way to Minnesota on Friday for a 35-minute talk about Medicare. Here's the text .

Robert Pear writes in the New York Times: "President Bush came here on Friday to promote the Medicare drug benefit, enacted 18 months ago with help from AARP. But he was greeted by people protesting his plan to overhaul Social Security."

Sharon Schmickle writes in the Minneapolis Star Tribune: "While focusing on seniors' needs for a range of Medicare benefits, Bush made no mention during his 40-minute appearance of his controversial plans to revamp Social Security. And there was no chance for some 400 retirees and health care workers in the invitation-only audience to ask about it."

Watching the McClellans

In a rare joint appearance, White House press secretary Scott McClellan teed up his brother, Mark McClellan, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services for a briefing on Friday.

Then on Saturday, their mother declared that she's running for governor in Texas.

Natalie Gott writes for the Associated Press: "Carole Keeton Strayhorn, the fast-talking state comptroller who makes sport of chastising Republican Gov. Rick Perry, said Saturday she would challenge the governor in next year's GOP primary.

" 'Now is time to replace a do-nothin' drugstore cowboy with one tough grandma,' Strayhorn, 65, told a cheering crowd."

The PBS White House Angle

Stephen Labaton writes in the New York Times: "E-mail messages obtained by investigators at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting show that its chairman, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, extensively consulted a White House official shortly before she joined the corporation about creating an ombudsman's office to monitor the balance and objectivity of public television and radio programs.

"Mr. Tomlinson said in an interview three months ago that he did not think he had instructed a subordinate to send material on the ombudsman project to Mary C. Andrews at her White House office in her final days as director of global communications, a political appointment."

But the e-mails "show that Ms. Andrews worked on a variety of ombudsman issues before joining the corporation, while still on the White House payroll. And they show that the White House instructed the corporation on Ms. Andrews's job title in her new post."

The Denver Three Do D.C.

Tuesday marks the three-month anniversary of the day the "Denver Three" were removed from a Bush "conversation" on Social Security on account of the bumper sticker on their car. (See my March 30 column.)

This afternoon, they'll deliver a letter to the White House demanding to know the identity of the man who booted them.

Exerciser-in-Chief

Medical writer Kevin Helliker writes approvingly in the Wall Street Journal that if the president of the United States can make time to exercise, anyone can make time.

"Once a day, he puts his desire for a workout ahead of the nation, ahead of his marriage, ahead of his kids. That those around him understand the sanctity of his workout became clear last month when a small plane entered restricted airspace above the nation's capital, prompting legislators and even Mrs. Bush to run for cover. But the president wasn't told about this scare until it was over, because his aides didn't want to interrupt his bike ride.

"In pursuit of a workout, the president is willing to risk the disapproval of some who might question his priorities. But in a largely sedentary nation, the president stands apart for appreciating the value of a workout, and for recognizing that the best way to serve one's employer, one's spouse and one's children is to chuck it all for half an hour daily and hit the gym, the pavement, the pool, the stairs, the bike, whatever -- and wherever. President Bush even placed a treadmill on Air Force One.

"The result is a healthier, happier and sharper chief executive, spouse and parent."

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