When President Bush was asked about Friday's air strikes against Iraq, the first bombings outside a U.S.-patrolled zone in two years, he three times called the attacks "routine" and added, "Our intention is to make sure that the world is as peaceful as possible."
Bush was hewing to his administration's talking points. Speaking an hour before Bush, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer used the word "routine" five times. In a briefing later, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice used "routine" or "routinely" four times.
Throughout his first month in office, the president's remarks on substantive issues have been consistent but in every case brief, leading policy analysts and congressional leaders to question whether the pattern is more indicative of an exceptionally disciplined politician, or one with a shallow grasp of the issues at hand. Longtime aides say that in fact his style reflects his ability to focus on what is most important to communicate directly to the public.
Michael O'Hanlon, a defense-policy scholar at the Brookings Institution, watched Bush's comments about Iraq live on television and said he "seemed to merge different concepts in his head in a random and somewhat illogical way."
"I didn't get a sense he had a real clear grasp in his own mind of exactly what yesterday's strike was about," O'Hanlon said Saturday.
He cited Bush's explanation made during a news conference with Mexican President Vicente Fox. Bush said, "Saddam Hussein has got to understand that we expect him to conform to the agreement that he signed after Desert Storm. We will enforce the no-fly zone, both south and north."
In the 1991 agreement that ended the Gulf War, Hussein pledged not to develop weapons of mass destruction. The agreement said nothing about no-fly zones. The United States and Britain established the no-fly zones in the early 1990s to protect Kurds in the north and Shiite Muslims in the south who had rebelled against Hussein's regime and were brutally repressed. O'Hanlon said, "If Bush wanted to explain the importance of maintaining the no-fly zone, he could have reminded people what Saddam had done to his own civilians using air power," rather than referring to the Gulf War cease-fire agreement.
In response, Fleischer said, "The president made two points and was crystal clear on both of them. . . . The president's actions and his words are supported by all but the most partisan Americans."
Bush's preparedness for the complex policy choices that come with the job, including deciding between trusted advisers who disagree, was an issue for much of his campaign. Polls showed those concerns were dispelled for many voters by his smooth performance in the presidential debates.
A muscular dissent to Bush's critics comes from Eric H. Holder Jr., the Clinton administration deputy attorney general who served as acting attorney general until Bush's choice, John D. Ashcroft, was confirmed. Holder, a Democrat, attended Bush's first Cabinet meeting on Jan. 31, the day before Ashcroft was sworn in.
Holder called Bush "formidable." He said the president conducted the entire meeting off a card that had four or five points written on it, and offered detailed goals in the areas of tax cuts, foreign policy and energy. "There was no question who was in charge," Holder said. "He has a light touch, but he takes up the space."
For many who deal with him, Bush's linguistic gymnastics -- long used as ammunition by those trying to challenge his competence -- have become an irrelevant and even endearing tic. Asked recently when he plans to travel to Africa, the second largest continent in terms of area, Bush replied: "One country at a time -- going to Mexico first."
But Democratic officials said they remain unsure whether the malapropisms speak to something deeper. One senior congressional Democrat said he finds Bush to be very personable and that he does not believe the friendliness is contrived. The Democrat went on to describe Bush as "not all that substantive."
"He gives short responses on the policy stuff and then moves the discussion back to the politics of the issue," the Democrat said.
Several Bush officials blamed doubts about his depth of knowledge on comparisons to President Bill Clinton, who loved to exhibit his policy knowledge in what critics considered windy detail. Karen P. Hughes, who is counselor to the president and for seven years spent more time with Bush than any other aide, said his brevity reflects "a more focused style" that is "direct, to the point, to the heart."
"He's aware that most of America is busy with their lives and you catch America's attention in brief snatches," Hughes said. "When he catches Americans' attention, he wants to catch their attention on an issue that's important to him and important to them. I don't think you'd ever hear this president pontificating for two hours about something. That doesn't mean he doesn't think it through."
Bush has risen in politics by sticking to a specific and often ingenious message. During his first gubernatorial race, in 1994, he talked tirelessly about his four-point agenda. In an address to the legislature in 1995, he said dramatically that he planned to add a fifth point. It turned out to be, "Pass the first four."
Despite such discipline, a Democratic leadership aide said the content of Bush's statements about issues during meetings with senators and House members has "made people feel better about taking him on."
Another leadership aide said that during the question period at a retreat of House Democrats, Bush brushed off issue after issue. "It wasn't as if there were one or two answers where he said, 'I'll look into it' or 'I'll get back to you' or 'I'm thinking about it' -- he did that across the board," the aide said. "Your four years aren't going to be made up of first meetings and welcoming remarks."
Bush's supporters implore skeptics to pull back the camera and see the president as he is seen by the general public -- a view where, these supporters point out, details matter less. Observe, these supporters say, the deftness and surprising speed with which Bush has gotten Republicans and Democrats talking and joking after the bruising Florida recount fight, which had the potential to poison relations between the parties for years.
Hughes, Bush's counselor, chuckled when the Democrats' comments were described to her. "President Bush is sometimes underestimated," she said. "I think that Vice President Gore realized debating him that he had underestimated his knowledge and grasp of issues. I've seen the president in some of these hour-long meetings with members of Congress. . . . I've heard him conduct a very detailed discussion of education policy. I've heard exchanges where he was polite but firm about the need for tax relief. . . . I've been in countless briefings, and he always asks the question that gets to the heart of the matter."
Two meetings, both closed to journalists, crystallized questions about Bush's preparedness.
During a session with Roman Catholic charity leaders on Jan. 31 that was accidentally piped into the White House press room, Bush gave a halting and notably imprecise description of his most controversial executive order. In that order, issued on his first business day in office, Bush restored a U.S. ban on foreign aid to groups that offer abortion counseling or services with their own money. The restriction is known as the Mexico City policy because the Reagan administration announced it at a conference there in 1984.
At the meeting, Bush called it "the money from Mexico, you know, that thing, the executive order I signed about Mexico City."
The session that really drew out Democratic second-guessers was the House Democratic retreat on Feb. 4 at a resort outside Pittsburgh. According to Democratic officials who took detailed notes, Bush was asked whether he would commit to taking the advice of Census Bureau professionals about the use of population figures that have been adjusted using statistical sampling methods to try to account for people who were missed.
"I haven't decided," Bush said, according to one official's notes. "I'll be briefed, and we'll listen to the professionals."
But Bush did have an earlier position on the issue, if not on the specific question. Since at least last March, Bush and his staff had said the actual head count produces the most accurate and reliable result. On Friday, Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans stripped Census Bureau officials of their authority to adjust population figures.
Hughes, Bush's counselor, suggested that the Democrats had unrealistic expectations for how much ground a president would break in a meeting with the opposition just after he took office. "In some areas where some of the questioners may have been looking for answers that the president had not made a decision yet, they may have felt that he didn't announce his decisions to them," she said.
One way Bush could resolve doubts about his command of issues would be to hold a solo news conference, something his staff says he will do eventually.
On most weekdays, Bush answers a few questions from the small group of reporters permitted at his photo opportunities. As a result, Hughes said, "I think he has been more accessible to you all by every day taking questions on the news of the day. He enjoys that. He understands that those of you who cover him need to know what he's thinking."
Still, Bush doesn't seem to be in any hurry for a formal question session. Asked during one of the photo-op exchanges about when he would hold a news conference, he said, "These count."
Staff writers David S. Broder and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.