Bush Blames Polls on 'Battle Fatigue'

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, May 11, 2006 12:57 PM

President Bush yesterday blamed his dismal job-approval ratings not on anything he's done wrong, but on a nationwide case of "battle fatigue" over the war in Iraq, the standoff with Iran and high gas prices.

Bush said he "understands" why Americans are feeling pessimistic about the future -- but he urged them to be patient and said the growing public disapproval over his policies isn't changing his mind about anything.

"My job is to make decisions based on what I think is right," he told reporters from seven Florida newspapers yesterday during a roundtable interview.

It was the first time Bush has directly responded to questions about his record-low approval ratings -- as low as 31 percent in two recent public-opinion surveys. (See yesterday's column, Where's the Base? ) Bush typically shakes off such questions with the implausible assertion that he doesn't pay any attention to polls.

By refraining from actually scolding the public for its unseemly lack of optimism, Bush may avoid the trap Jimmy Carter fell into in his famous " national malaise " speech in 1979, when he seemed to be blaming the nation for his problems.

Nevertheless, Bush's message to the Americans remains: The fault is not in the White House, but within yourselves -- and, of course, the media.

Bill Adair writes in the St. Petersburg Times: "President Bush often says he doesn't pay attention to polls. But on Wednesday, he showed he was keenly aware of his record-low approval rating.

"Asked about the cause, Bush blamed the constant headlines about violence in Iraq, the dispute with Iran and high gas prices. But he emphasized that the poll ratings would not affect his decisionmaking, especially on the U.S. role in Iraq. . . .

"Later, while discussing how Harry Truman tried to help Japan become a democracy, Bush again mentioned the downbeat mood about his presidency. 'There's concern here in America. There are people wondering whether or not Iraq can self-govern. I understand why they're worried about that because they see every day on their TV screens, death. And they read about militias taking revenge in their own hands, and it appears to be a chaotic scene.'

"He likened Iraq to Europe rebuilding after World War II and said that conditions in Iraq will improve as democracy takes hold."

Jim Stratton writes in the Orlando Sentinel: "President Bush, his approval ratings at a record low, acknowledged Wednesday that war in Iraq and rising gas prices have created 'battle fatigue' among many Americans.

"That anxiety, Bush said, has settled over much of the nation as people worry about whether the U.S. will succeed in Iraq and how they'll afford to fill up their tanks.

" 'There's a sense of disquiet because of the war in Iraq,' said Bush, in an hourlong interview with the Orlando Sentinel and six other Florida newspapers. . . .

"But the president insisted his Iraq strategy will work, saying 'there's a deep desire by the Iraqi people to live in a democracy.' He also urged Americans to be patient as his administration looks for ways to help ease the pain at the pump."

William March writes in the Tampa Tribune: "Asked about his declining poll numbers, he said, 'I think it's because we're in a time of war and war is unsettling to people. . . . They respect life. They're concerned about the violence they see on a constant basis.'

"The president said the economy is strong, and isn't the cause of national concern.

" 'There's such a disquiet because of the war in Iraq, now the emergence that Iran is threatening to have a nuclear weapon,' he said. That and high gasoline prices 'have caused Americans to take a look at the future and wonder whether or not it's as good as they want it to be. I understand that.

" 'On the other hand,' he continued, 'my job is to make decisions based upon what I think is right, and in the case of Iraq it's to win this battle in the war on terror.' "

Losing the Base

Jim VandeHei and Peter Baker write in The Washington Post: "Disaffection over spending and immigration have caused conservatives to take flight from President Bush and the Republican Congress at a rapid pace in recent weeks, sending Bush's approval ratings to record lows and presenting a new threat to the GOP's 12-year reign on Capitol Hill, according to White House officials, lawmakers and new polling data. . . .

"Karl Rove, Bush's top political adviser, and GOP leaders are well aware of the problem and planning a summer offensive to win back conservatives with a mix of policy fights and warnings of how a Democratic Congress would govern. The plan includes votes on tax cuts, a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage, new abortion restrictions and measures to restrain government spending."

Linda Feldmann writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "Republicans are quietly worrying that Bush could even dip below the psychologically significant threshold of 30 percent in a major poll."

The Luttig Defection

The resignation of Michael Luttig from the federal appeals court bench represents another, possibly significant, defection from Bush's base.

Jerry Markon writes in The Washington Post: "J. Michael Luttig, the federal appeals court judge who was on President Bush's short list for the Supreme Court but recently clashed with the administration over a terrorism case, resigned from the bench yesterday to become senior vice president and general counsel at the Boeing Co."

As Markon explains, "in December, Luttig issued a strongly worded opinion that rebuked the administration's actions in the case of 'enemy combatant' Jose Padilla. Though Luttig had earlier written an opinion that strongly backed the president's authority to hold Padilla without charges or trial, he then refused to authorize Padilla's transfer to Justice Department custody to face criminal charges of terrorism."

That transfer was widely seen as an attempt by the Bush administration to thwart a Supreme Court appeal that might have limited the president's power to hold enemy combatants.

In his blistering December opinion , Luttig wrote that the administration's actions "have left not only the impression that Padilla may have been held for these years, even if justifiably, by mistake. . . . They have left the impression that the government may even have come to the belief that the principle in reliance upon which it has detained Padilla for this time, that the President possesses the authority to detain enemy combatants who enter into this country for the purpose of attacking America and its citizens from within, can, in the end, yield to expediency with little or no cost to its conduct of the war against terror. . . . And these impressions have been left, we fear, at what may ultimately prove to be substantial cost to the government's credibility before the courts."

Jess Bravin and J. Lynn Lunsford write in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "The clash, which underscores the increasing skepticism among even some conservative jurists toward the Bush administration's sweeping theories of executive power, culminated yesterday in Judge Luttig's resignation. . . .

"People familiar with Judge Luttig's thinking say he knew his condemnation of the administration would bring a personal cost but he believes that judges must apply the law regardless of its political implications. These people say he has been disillusioned by the encroachment of politics on the judiciary -- and the view that judges are on 'our team' or 'their team.' "

Time for Some Changes?

So is it time for someone on Bush's team to walk into the Oval Office and tell him it may be time to do some rethinking? That person would have to be very courageous indeed.

Recently, there have been quite a few high-profile cases of Bush being publicly confronted with people who actually disagreed with him. But I still don't see any sign that he is remotely interested in what they have to say.

Consider Bush's extraordinary interview with the German tabloid Bild on Friday. Before the reporter could even ask a question, Bush went off:

"The interesting thing about Washington is that they want me to change -- they being the -- and I'm not changing, you know. You can't make decisions if you don't know who you are, and you flip around with the politics. You've got to stay strong in what you believe and optimistic about that you'll get good results.

"And so --the other thing I want you to know about me is that no matter how pressurized it may seem, I'm not changing what I believe. . . . I'm not changing. I don't care whether they like me at the cocktail parties, or not. I want to be able to leave this office with my integrity intact."

More on Rove's Plan

Howard Fineman writes in his Newsweek column: "This fall's election season is going to make the past three look like episodes of 'Barney.' . . .

"The way I read the recent moves of Karl Rove & Co., they are preparing to wage war the only way open to them: not by touting George Bush, Lord knows, but by waging a national campaign to paint a nightmarish picture of what a Democratic Congress would look like, and to portray that possibility, in turn, as prelude to the even more nightmarish scenario: the return of a Democrat (Hillary) to the White House.

"Rather than defend Bush, Rove will seek to rally the Republicans' conservative grass roots by painting Democrats as the party of tax increases, gay marriage, secularism and military weakness. . . .

"So the White House will try to survive by driving down the ratings of the other side."

Plan B?

At the same time, according to Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey in Newsweek: "Even before today's poll, administration officials were weighing yet another retooling of the message to woo so-called suburban voters. Last Thursday, 18 House Republicans met at the White House with Karl Rove, the president's top political adviser, to come up with an agenda of less divisive policy ideas that could score points with voters in the suburbs, both Democrats and Republicans. Instead of focusing on contentious topics like immigration or a proposed ban on same-sex marriage, Rove and the lawmakers strategized on an agenda centered on more simple legislative proposals that could be an easy win for the GOP. Among the ideas: tax incentives for college-savings accounts, more funding for local police working to crack down on gangs and the creation of a federal database to track sex offenders. The group also talked about laws to combat urban sprawl -- a huge issue in states like Illinois, Ohio and Arizona, home to some of the most closely fought House and Senate races in the country."

Or: A Dose of Humility?

Peggy Noonan writes in her Wall Street Journal opinion column that it may take a defeat in November for the GOP to unlearn the lessons of power.

"What's behind the president's, and the Congressional Republicans', poll drop? All the bad news that's been noted, from Iraq and Katrina to high spending and immigration. What's behind the bad decisions made in those areas? Detachment from the ground."

The Books Tell the Story

In an astonishing essay that serves as a timely reminder of the enormous value that books bring to the public discourse, New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani distills the wisdom of the recent "floodlet of books has been published about President Bush, his administration and the war in Iraq. . . .

"[T]aken together with earlier volumes, these books create a cumulative and, in many respects, surprisingly coherent portrait of the Bush White House and its management style. Authors as disparate as the Reagan administration economist Bruce Bartlett, the New Yorker investigative reporter Seymour M. Hersh, the Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes and the New York Times reporter James Risen point to ways in which this administration has discarded past precedent, and illuminate its penchant for circumventing traditional processes of policy development and policy review."

Sometimes on the Internet, big stories can get lost in the frenzy over daily minutiae. Books are a nice antidote.

Writes Kakutani: "According to books published so far, even the ultimate decision to go to war against Iraq -- a war that has already resulted in, as of Tuesday, 2,416 (and counting) United States military deaths, and an estimated more than 35,000 Iraqi deaths (according to Iraq Body Count, an independent media-monitoring group) -- seems to have been somewhat ad hoc. In 'The Assassins' Gate,' Mr. Packer quotes Richard Haass, the former director of policy planning in the State Department, saying that a real weighing of pros and cons about the war never took place: 'It was an accretion, a tipping point,' Mr. Haass says. 'A decision was not made -- a decision happened, and you can't say when or how.' "

Of course, this sort of big-picture stuff isn't entirely the province of books.

Jacob Weisberg writes today in Slate: "Bush's stated management model -- appointing good people, delegating authority to them, and holding them accountable for results -- reflects some common-sense notions he picked up at Harvard Business School. His actual management practice, however, has not followed that model. In practice, Bush tends to appoint mediocre people he trusts to be loyal, delegates hardly any decision-making power to anyone beyond a few top aides, and seldom holds anyone accountable. These failures are related. If you don't give people real authority, you can't reasonably hold them responsible for what follows. What has grown up around the president as a result is not an effective political machine, but a stultifying imperial court, a hackocracy dominated by sycophants, cronies, and yes men."

Big NSA News

Leslie Cauley writes in USA Today: "The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with direct knowledge of the arrangement told USA TODAY.

"The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans -- most of whom aren't suspected of any crime. This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, sources said in separate interviews. . . .

"The NSA's domestic program, as described by sources, is far more expansive than what the White House has acknowledged. Last year, Bush said he had authorized the NSA to eavesdrop -- without warrants -- on international calls and international e-mails of people suspected of having links to terrorists when one party to the communication is in the USA. Warrants have also not been used in the NSA's efforts to create a national call database."

Abramoff Watch

James V. Grimaldi and Susan Schmidt write in The Washington Post: "U.S. Secret Service logs made public yesterday show only two visits by disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff to the White House. . . ."

Mark Sherman writes for the Associated Press: "The documents are, by the White House's acknowledgment, an incomplete accounting of Abramoff's meetings with administration officials."

No kidding. As Paul Kiel writes for TPMMuckracker.com: "In short, the records are a joke. For once, Scott McClellan was right ."

The Safavian E-mails

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "The Bush administration's top procurement official offered his assistance to now-disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff as his lobbying empire began to crumble, according to e-mails released Wednesday by the White House.

" 'Let me know if there is anything I can do to help with damage control,' David Safavian, who is now under indictment, messaged Abramoff on Feb. 22, 2004. . . .

"In another e-mail to Abramoff after his lobbying practices had come under investigation, Safavian explained that he would have to turn down a last-minute invitation from the lobbyist for lunch, noting that Abramoff had rejected an earlier offer for the two to get together.

" 'When you spurned my invite, I called one of the industry sycophants and offered him an opportunity to suck up,' Safavian wrote."

More From the Florida Interview: Pray

Stratton of the Orlando Sentinel summarizes Bush's comments on the upcoming hurricane season: "Bush said he worried about the thousands of Gulf Coast residents now living in trailers. 'Let's just pray,' he said, 'there is no hurricane heading that way.' "

How Embarrassing

CBS reports: "A public sanitation worker in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday found a thick stack of papers with nearly every detail of President Bush's trip to Florida on the floor next to a big trash truck."

Bush's Morning

In the second part of their Newsweek piece, Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey point out that Bush's description of the morning of Sept. 11 in Friday's Bild interview conflicts with his earlier accounts.

Tomorrow

I'll be on Washington Post Radio again tomorrow, around 2 p.m. ET.

Also, I've gotten tons of responses to my request in Wednesday's column for tough but fair questions for Tony Snow. I'll be printing my favorites right here tomorrow.

McClellan's Last Day

Mike Allen of Time describes a party some members of the press corps threw for McClellan last Friday in the White House basement.

"When the party got under way, Ken Herman of Cox Newspapers, . . . who has known McClellan more than 15 years, read a fake briefing as if he were McClellan. 'As part of our new openness policy, I wanted to announce that we will be allowing the press to get an up-close, personal and full immersion view of our secret prisons in Eastern Europe.' "

McClellan sat down for his last Ask the White House chat on the White House Web site yesterday. He provided his former boss with a model for answering the sort of question Bush muffed last week.

"Lynn, from California writes: Dear Scott: I think you served the President well and I am saddened at your departure. What was the highlight of your career working for the President? . . .

"Scott McClellan: Thank you, Lynn. I think the highlight has been when I was with the President and he was visiting our troops and their families."

And it sounded like he might be getting a little defensive about all those glowing stories about Snow.

"I often . . . stick my head into the oval office and check with the President to see how he might want to respond to a particular question. I have had direct access to him anytime I have needed to see him. . . .

"I have also worked for the President for more than seven years now, and knew him even before I went to work for him. One of my strengths has been that I have a good sense of his thinking and how he might respond to a particular question."

Mary and Larry

Mary Cheney was on CNN with Larry King last night.

Some choice bits:

"KING: What is the biggest misconception about him? What do we, the general we have all wrong?

"CHENEY: The whole Dick Cheney is Darth Vader thing is pretty interesting to me.

"KING: That's totally wrong?

"CHENEY: I can say with complete conviction my dad is not Darth Vader." . . .

"CHENEY: . . . [T]here are these series of dinners in Washington and the White House Correspondents is one of them, where you've got to walk this fine line if you're a politician because you can make fun of yourself and the press can make fun of you, but boy, you sure can't make fun of the White House Press Corps.

"KING: What did you make fun of Colbert?

"CHENEY: To be honest with you, I really didn't find him all that humorous."

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