A Lot to Answer For

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, June 28, 2005; 12:51 PM

Beware the cut-and-run straw man tonight, when President Bush delivers a prime-time speech about Iraq with troops from the nation's largest army base as his backdrop.

To the extent that Bush acknowledges the growing public opposition to his leadership of the war at all, it may well be to disparage those who would "cut and run" rather than "stay the course."

But the public discontent over Bush and the war is too deep for him to ignore, and too reasoned for him to write off so easily.

According to the latest polls, Americans are not saying that U.S. troops should leave instantly. They're saying they feel the country is bogged down in a war that was a mistake in the first place, they're saying they feel misled by the president and have lost confidence in him, and they're saying they want to know the way out.

They're not saying abandon the troops; they're saying support the troops. They're not saying dishonor the dead, they're saying stop the dying. They're not saying let the terrorists win; they're saying they don't think that victory in Iraq will have a major impact on terrorism elsewhere.

So will Bush address this growing chorus?

In yesterday's briefing, press secretary Scott McClellan was repeatedly asked if there would be anything new in Bush's speech. His answer: It's a new speech.

Will people hear anything they haven't heard the president say before? His answer: "I think many Americans have not heard much of what the President has to say tomorrow night."

McClellan said Bush will not announce any change in course, but he did offer that the president would "talk in a very specific way about the way forward."

So it's possible that Bush will in great detail explain the military goals in Iraq, put forth benchmarks for success, and tell the public how it can measure progress toward pullout. That would indeed not be a change in strategy, but rather an overdue and welcome clarification.

But reading the tea-leaves on the home page of the White House Web site suggests instead a lot of rehashed talk about "freedom and democracy."

Of course, even if Bush does not engage the growing unease about the war and just rephrases his previous assertions, he will still come out ahead if the press coverage highlights the new sound bites -- rather than explaining that he failed to address the mounting concerns of the American public.

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