Just More of the Same?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, June 27, 2005 12:48 PM

President Bush is suffering from an increasingly large disconnect with the American people, polls show, most notably when it comes to Iraq.

So the big question about Bush's address on Iraq tomorrow night is whether he will come to the podium equipped with a speech that addresses the mounting concerns of the American people -- or whether he will simply roll out a repackaging of the talking points that contributed to the disconnect in the first place.

The network executives who have been asked to broadcast the address live in prime time are probably wondering the same thing.

Just this morning, a new Washington Post/ABC News poll finds a majority of Americans rejecting Bush administration claims that the insurgency is weakening and not convinced that victory over the insurgents will have a major impact on terrorism elsewhere in the world.

Among the other disconnects haunting the president: Polls show Americans increasingly are opposed to the war, think it was a mistake in the first place, want to bring American troops home, and believe Bush deliberately misled the public about Iraq's WMD.

But it seems unlikely that Bush will acknowledge any of that tomorrow night. "I think we have a clear strategy that we have outlined," press secretary Scott McClellan said on Friday. "And he will talk in a very specific way about the way forward to succeeding and implementing that strategy."

That said, Bush and his aides have made two recent rhetorical shifts that might show up in the speech. In an attempt to not seem over cheerful, Bush is suddenly talking a lot about how the war is hard work -- and hard for him, personally. Meanwhile, top adviser Karl Rove last week launched what could turn into a concerted attack on those who oppose the war in Iraq as weak-willed liberals who sympathize with terrorists and endanger American troops.

Trying to Turn the Tide

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush is casting about for ways to turn the tide of public opinion on Iraq. . . .

"A new stepped-up public relations effort has yet to show results. The next event is a prime-time speech on Tuesday at Fort Bragg, N.C., with U.S. troops as his backdrop. . . .

"Bush administration officials see the speech as a chance for the president to clearly spell out his goals and the stakes of a continued U.S. military presence in Iraq. But analysts suggest it will take more than a finely honed speech to revive flagging public support or to reverse an alarming slide in military recruitment."

Linda Feldmann writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "When President Bush addresses the nation Tuesday evening from Fort Bragg, N.C., a tableau of US troops behind him, he will make his boldest effort in months to reassure Americans that the administration is not 'disconnected from reality' in Iraq, as even some in his own party now charge.

"Already, for the past week, Bush's new emphasis on Iraq has been well rehearsed: The road ahead is tough, and the casualties weigh on him personally, but the US must press ahead. Iraq is moving forward with a new constitution and national elections. Setting a timetable for US withdrawal would only aid the enemy. . . .

"A central question is whether Bush and other top officials can talk their way into more public support. 'There might be a short-term bump,' says John Mueller, an expert on war and public opinion at Ohio State University. 'But there aren't any new arguments he can troop out. We've heard them a thousand times.' "

Doyle McManus writes in the Los Angeles Times: "For months, President Bush has struggled to maintain public support for the war in Iraq in the face of periodic setbacks on the battlefield. Now he faces a second front in the battle for public opinion: charges that the administration is not telling the truth about how the war is going. . . .

" 'Senators are hearing from back home: If things are going so well, why do we hear every morning that 30 people have been killed in Baghdad?' said a top Republican advisor who refused to be identified."

John Barry, Richard Wolffe and Evan Thomas write in Newsweek: "[T]he administration is not politically deaf. Bush and his advisers can hear the rumblings of concern in the public and within their party's own ranks, and last week they began taking steps to shore up support for the war. In the view of the White House, the public is periodically upset by the violent images on its TVs and so the president must, from time to time, speak up. The model for the president's speech this week was his address to the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., last year. . . .

"[B]ut it's not clear that Bush's speeches serve to inspire. According to the Gallup poll, support for the war in Iraq went up 1 percentage point after his War College speech last year. Public confidence seems to more closely track the ebbs and flows in violence."

The Newsweek reporters write at length about the relationship between the military and the president, particularly as it plays out in Bush's regularly scheduled video teleconferences with Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of U.S. troops in the Middle East, and Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top commander in Iraq.

"'The president interrupts a lot and asks questions,' a White House spokesman told Newsweek. . . .

"But according to a retired general who has spoken to Abizaid, the conversations do not involve much give and take. (The source declined to be identified because he is a friend of Abizaid's.) The president is generous with his praise and support for the generals, who by and large return his salute."

Bloomberg's William Roberts considers the alleged Bush credibility gap, and writes: "A review of statements by the president and his top advisers since 2003 shows why such criticism seems to resonate with the public. . . .

"Bush's credibility problem may have begun on May 1, 2003, when the president stood on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, in view of a banner that read 'Mission Accomplished,' and said: 'Major combat operations in Iraq have ended.'

"Since that day, 1,581 U.S. service personnel and five civilians have been killed. More than 6,016 have been wounded. Only 109 U.S. soldiers were killed in the initial invasion of Iraq, and 426 wounded. U.S. forces found no stockpiles of the banned chemical and biological weapons that Bush said justified the invasion."

On the Radio

Bush's radio address on Saturday was another step in the buildup to Tuesday's speech.

"Next Tuesday is the first anniversary of the moment the Iraqi people reclaimed their free and sovereign nation," Bush said. "To mark that historic date, I will travel to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to speak to our troops and the American people about our mission in Iraq, why it remains important to our safety here at home, and our two-track strategy for victory."

In the Democratic response, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security advisor to President Carter, said: "This war has been conducted with tactical and strategic incompetence." He called on Bush to explain "clearly and credibly what must be achieved before our troops can come home. And then he should lay out what he needs in order to achieve that goal."

The Friday Meeting

Bush's meeting on Friday with the Iraqi president was marred by more violence in Iraq.

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush said yesterday that the United States will not set a timetable for pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq and predicted victory in what he repeatedly described as a difficult battle against fanatical 'killers.'

"His remarks came hours after a suicide car bomber and gunmen ambushed a U.S. military convoy in Fallujah, devastating a vehicle filled with mostly female Marines, in the war's bloodiest day to date for women in uniform."

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "He acknowledged the political fragility of the moment when he was asked by a reporter whether he was 'in something of a second term slump,' and he shot back with 'a quagmire, perhaps.' The line drew laughter, but the perception that the situation in Iraq has deteriorated to that Vietnam-era description is exactly what the White House is responding to, especially in Congress."

Here's the transcript.

"It's tough work. And it's hard. The hardest part of my job is to comfort the family members who have lost a loved one, which I intend to do when I go down to North Carolina on Tuesday," Bush said.

Very Hard

Dana Milbank highlights Bush's new rhetorical device in his Washington Post column: "It's 'a difficult chore, and it's hard work' in Iraq, Bush asserted. 'It's hard to stop suicide bombers, and it's hard to stop these people that, in many cases, are being smuggled into Iraq from outside Iraq. It's hard to stop them.'

"Bush alluded to high levels of difficulty no fewer than 19 times in his 33-minute appearance. The Iraqi government faces 'monumental tasks,' he said. 'The way ahead is not going to be easy.' In case somebody napped through that, he repeated: 'It's difficult. . . . It's tough work, and it's hard.'

"The president hadn't had such a hard outing since last year's presidential debate, when he mentioned 22 times how very hard his job was, saying of one military widow: 'It's hard work to try to love her as best as I can.' 'Saturday Night Live' spoofed Bush for that performance, showing him pondering Saturdays at the office and saying, 'Frankly, I don't know why my opponent wants this job, because it's hard!' "

Karl Rove Watch

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "Even as they expressed continued support for Mr. Bush and his goals, influential Republicans said Karl Rove and the White House political operation have been slow to shift from campaign mode, with its base-energizing positions, to an approach that allows for more compromise and increases the probability of Mr. Bush signing legislation that directly addresses the everyday concerns of voters. . . .

"The tensions inherent in the transition from a first-term presidency, with its inevitable focus on re-election, to a second-term administration, which naturally casts more of an eye to history, are embodied by Mr. Rove. He has taken on the role of deputy chief of staff for policy, a perch from which he has broad, substantive influence over almost every domestic issue.

"Yet he continues to play his traditional role of tending to Mr. Bush's conservative base, exposing him to Democratic criticism that he too easily subordinates good policy to politics."

Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post: "He has risen to the highest ranks of the White House, carries the title of deputy chief of staff and presides over a broad portfolio of domestic and foreign issues. But even as he has morphed from political operative to policy adviser, Karl Rove retains the instincts of the direct-mail specialist he once was in Texas.

"The verbal strike he aimed at liberals and liberalism during a speech to the New York Conservative Party on Wednesday night came straight out of the direct-mail manual: pithy, provocative and designed to energize one side by torching the other."

Focus on the Foreign?

Edwin Chen writes in the Los Angeles Times: "With key elements of his domestic agenda stalled and his job-approval ratings sagging, President Bush is turning to a time-honored gambit favored by many of his predecessors in the Oval Office, especially as they moved into second terms: He is devoting more time and energy to international affairs, most visibly by hosting a stream of foreign leaders. . . .

"'Foreign affairs becomes a refuge for every second-term president as his powers weaken at home,' said Harvard University scholar David Gergen, who has advised presidents of both parties. . . .

"By the time he returns from Denmark and a summit of industrialized nations in Scotland in early July, Bush will have met with about 50 of his counterparts in the space of 10 weeks. On Monday, the president will host German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, a strong critic of the Iraq war."

How Bush Sabotaged Himself

Janet Hook writes in the Los Angeles Times: "After six months of presidential speeches, town meetings and maneuvering over White House plans to overhaul Social Security, Republicans are coming to grips with an unpleasant reality: The central pillars of President Bush's proposal have crumbled on Capitol Hill. . . .

"Bush's struggle is a testimony, in part, to how complex and politically risky it is to propose any change in Social Security. But some analysts say it is also a product of a mismatch between the president's leadership style and the challenge he faces. The uncompromising, provocative style that has made Bush a commanding leader in foreign policy is more problematic when he takes on a tough domestic issue that cries out for flexibility and bipartisan cooperation."

Denver Three Watch

Ann Imse writes in the Rocky Mountain News: "The Secret Service says it will let the U.S. Attorney's Office decide whether to file criminal charges of impersonating a Secret Service agent against a volunteer who ousted three people from a presidential speech in Denver on March 21.

"The move passes responsibility for the politically touchy decision from the president's bodyguard agency to the Denver district's acting U.S. attorney, William Leone."

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "For President Bush, it is bad enough that his campaign to sell Americans on his overhaul of Social Security has not been considered a brilliant success. Now a flap over who got to go to one of the president's recent Social Security events has erupted in a swing state, showing the power of a dogged little anti-Bush group now called the Denver Three to irritate the Goliath of the White House."

And in spite of the criminal investigation, Bumiller writes: "The White House was having none of it.

" 'It's clear that these three protesters are trying to advance their own political agenda,' Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, said in an interview Friday. Asked who the mystery man was, Mr. McClellan did not respond and then said he had no interest in going over yet again the events in Denver on March 21."

Torture Watch

Reuters reports: "President Bush, whose administration has been hit by accusations of prisoner abuse, said on Sunday that the United States was committed to the elimination of torture worldwide.

"In a statement to mark United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, Bush said: 'Freedom from torture is an inalienable human right, and we are committed to building a world where human rights are respected and protected by the rule of law.'

"Accusations of prisoner abuse in Iraq, Afghanistan and at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have brought into question the policies of the Bush administration in treating foreign prisoners."

Supreme Court Watch

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "The White House gathered key political operatives at a strategy meeting Friday to prepare for a possible Supreme Court vacancy that officials believe could occur this week, leading to the first high court confirmation battle in a decade, according to Republicans informed about the session.

"The meeting, hosted by White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., his deputy Karl Rove and counsel Harriet Miers, was called to ensure that President Bush's supporters are ready for the high-stakes, high-intensity, high-dollar campaign that would follow a nomination. But some participants later told associates that they were not sure if any justice would retire."

And Baker points out that a court nomination would further complicate Bush's efforts to push through his stalled domestic program.

"A senior White House official put it this way: 'It paralyzes everything else.' "

Contentious Briefing

It was another contentious press briefing on Friday, with CBS News's Bill Plante taking the lead.

"Q Scott, I understand there is an anniversary date next Tuesday, but you're saying that this speech is happening, in part, because this is a critical moment, a critical time --

"MR. McCLELLAN: That's correct.

"Q -- in Iraq. What's more critical about this month and this moment than, say, a month ago or nine months ago?

"MR. McCLELLAN: This is a critical period. . . .

"Q Is this moment any more critical than the critical moments you described in the run-up to the presidential election a year ago September/October, in the run-up to the election in Iraq last December/January? You said the same thing then, a 'critical moment.'

"MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, I think you can go back and look at those time periods and look at what we said during that time period. This is a very critical period in Iraq. Here's why: because the terrorists are trying to test our resolve, and they're trying to shake the will of the international community and the Iraqi people. . . .

"Q They've been doing that for months, don't you agree or --

"MR. McCLELLAN: No, as General Abizaid talked about, there have been a growing number of foreign terrorists coming in to Iraq, because they recognize that Iraq is a central front in the war on terrorism. And, Bill, we are a nation that is at war. And the Commander-in-Chief believes it's important to keep the American people informed about --

"Q Yes, but what's changed?"

It goes on and on. Plante wouldn't let go. But McClellan wouldn't budge, either.

Tee Ball Watch

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush and two dozen kids from inner-city teams kicked off the fifth season of White House T-ball Sunday on the South Lawn.

"The president performed the equivalent of throwing out the first pitch when he leaned over, placed a ball on the tee at home plate and shouted, 'Play ball!'"

Reuters reports: "The ball players fidgeted, danced at the plate and ran the wrong way -- Tee Ball season opened at the White House on Sunday."

© 2005 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive