He has been called a CEO in wartime, a chief executive content to delegate to his generals and to cheerlead from the Oval Office. But President Bush has played a somewhat different role in the war with Iraq, and like the planners at the Pentagon, he has been forced to adapt to the realities of the battlefield.
For the first few days, he remained mostly out of sight. Having made the decision to begin the war, he let the generals take over. Bush, aides said, was barely following the bombing of Baghdad on television.
Yesterday, with questions continuing about the war plan, the president was out in public -- for the second day in a row -- offering assurances of progress and warnings that victory may take time. Today he will be out again, speaking to veterans, a sign that he and his advisers now believe it is essential for him to be at the forefront of explaining the war to the public.
In doing so, Bush has effectively taken personal control of the message machine for the war. That may be necessary, but by doing so, he risks personalizing the war even more than he has, putting him at greater jeopardy for anything that may go wrong.
People close to Bush said his aides initially emphasized a hands-off approach because they wanted to insulate him from bad news and because they did not want him to appear obsessed with or emotional about the war. These aides quickly realized they had overdone it, potentially making Bush look out of touch. But his advisers have concluded that scripted remarks, rather than off-the-cuff comments, may be required in assuring that the message of the day gets delivered forcefully.
Given Bush's Harvard MBA and the widespread descriptions that he is far from a detail person, his advisers encourage the image of the confident president as CEO, and yet that masks the way he has operated since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Bush constantly prodded his advisers to demonstrate results -- as quickly as possible. He wanted details of the hunt for the leaders of the al Qaeda terrorist network and the pace of the war in Afghanistan, to the point that his advisers in the White House told him that he should stand back and not try to assume the role of general himself.
He has, aides say, played a similar role in preparing for the war in Iraq, questioning -- along with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld -- the plans and proposals from Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the commander of forces in the Persian Gulf region, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. While Bush may give the generals a wide berth, he is hardly content to let the action flow without getting involved. Aides said he questioned whether the plan was too conventional, what the Iraqis might have learned from the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and he constantly asks what can go wrong with the plans and how ready the generals are if something does go wrong.
Bush receives two briefings a day on the war, one in the morning and the other in the late afternoon. Aides say Bush has had many questions: the tactics of the Fedayeen forces that have attacked U.S. troops on the way to Baghdad; the strength of the elite Medina Division of the Iraqi Republican Guard; the status of the Turkish military; the morale of U.S. forces; whether the United States is effectively communicating with the Iraqi people.
"The plan is set, the plan is being implemented," one presidential adviser said. "He does not and will not micromanage the plan. Instead, what he does is pepper people with questions to ascertain how the plan is going and to get the latest details and the latest information."
At a meeting Monday with his economic advisers, believed to be a session devoted mainly to the U.S. economy, Bush wanted information about how the war is affecting the economies of such Iraqi neighbors as Egypt, Turkey and Jordan, a senior administration official said.
"He gets consulted, but consulted consistent with how does that tactic help us achieve the overall mission," said White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. "He isn't saying, 'I want eight more tanks here,' or 'Why are you taking this division up this road?' "
Bush has said he believes, as commander-in-chief, that he should be the last person in the chain of command to express doubts or worries about what his administration is doing, fearing that would quickly demoralize his team. Aides said he has not done so even privately this week. But with questions swirling outside the government and in some parts of the administration about whether the war is going as well as predicted, he may be forced to deal with growing debate among his advisers.
His advisers point to the early stages of the war in Afghanistan, when outside critics were questioning whether the U.S. strategy was working, for clues to how Bush may respond to problems in Iraq. In that case, the president and his advisers put on a public face of calm and confidence, but inside the administration the president's advisers raised substantial doubts. It was Bush who braced his war cabinet members, at a meeting in October 2001, challenging them either to offer an alternative strategy or stick with the plan in place.
White House communications director Dan Bartlett said that so far in this war, that kind of discussion has not taken place. "Everyone recognizes it's far too early, but everyone remembers what we went through in that Afghan campaign and it's almost like [with the criticism], here we go again."
Another official, however, said the concerns voiced by some retired military officers have penetrated the administration, with pointed questions being raised about whether the plan is working and with the generals responding. "It's in the air," the official said. Other sources said there is continuing tension within the administration over the size of the force on the ground in Iraq, with one official saying the president's view is that "this needs to be looked at another time."
One adviser said Bush is irritated at the media for setting "phony expectations" about how quickly the U.S.-led forces would be able to subdue the Iraqi military and drive President Saddam Hussein from power.
Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans, who speaks with the president daily, said of Bush, "No doubts enter his mind at all. He knows we have the resources to prevail. We've got the plan to prevail. It's not a matter of 'if,' it's just a matter of 'when.' "
Some people who have seen Bush since the war started say that, while he appears focused, he also appears tired and worn down by the months of war planning and diplomacy. "He didn't look quite as energetic as I've seen him in other settings," said one person who saw him recently. "His face, his body language would indicate that he's had some long days."
Normally jovial, Bush continues to show a sense of humor, but there is less small talk than in calmer times, say those who have spoken with him. They also say his personal animosity toward Hussein is palpable, displaying what one person called "utter contempt." Bush had talked about the Iraqi leader's brutalities in public, but those who have heard him in private believe it is more than part of the administration's message. "I think it is heartfelt," said a person who saw Bush after the war started.
His advisers believe that the more critics complain about the pace and direction of the war, the more Bush will lean in the opposite direction to stick with the plan -- and they say he believes the public will stick with him if he does. "He has thought for a long while that the American people were steady and in support of this," one White House official said. "He also thinks they are able to deal with the consequences of this far more than [critics] give them credit for."