President Bush and his guest, Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, reversed roles yesterday in the East Room. While the quiet Iraqi delivered a peppy sales pitch to the United States and spoke cheerfully of declining violence, the famously sunny president kept talking about how terribly rough things are.
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!"
But if his debate performance was more of a tic, his assertions of difficulty yesterday seemed deliberate: They began in his opening statement and qualified almost every claim of progress that he made throughout the questions and answers that followed. The president's hedging was in contrast to his vice president's claim that the Iraqi insurgency is in its "last throes" -- a claim challenged on Thursday by the commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf -- and his defense secretary's recent chirping about the strength of the Iraqi dinar.
Implicitly, Bush was answering polls showing that a majority of Americans have turned against the war and that they are not believing the administration's happy talk. (As if to remind him, a new poll yesterday, from Associated Press/Ipsos, found that a majority now views the war as a mistake.) Preparing for Tuesday night's speech to the nation, and confronting restive lawmakers who want a deadline for withdrawal from Iraq, Bush pivoted from airy reassurances about progress to urgent warnings about the need to stay. "Mission accomplished" gave way to "I'm not giving up on the mission."
That left Jafari in the strange position of being the reassuring one. "I see from up close what's happening in Iraq, and I know we are making steady and substantial progress," he said in halting English. Then, speaking confidently in his own language, he added: "The bombing in Iraq has been reduced a lot. And we are making great progress -- everything is making progress, quantitatively and qualitatively."
Bush did not entirely abandon his upbeat message. He spoke of "extraordinary achievements in the face of tremendous challenge," and he promised with certainty that "progress is being made, and the defeat of the enemy -- and they will be defeated -- will be accelerated by the progress on the ground in Iraq." Yet the paragraph preceding that confident vow contained a "difficult," a "tough" and two "hards."
Judy Keen of USA Today, granted one of the two questions from American reporters, rubbed the president's nose in polls, asking him if he's in "a second-term slump."
"A quagmire, perhaps," Bush proposed with sarcasm.
Bush wrestled with the pronunciation of Jafari's name and presented the interpreter some challenges by describing the Iraqi as an "open fella" and referring to "a dog chasing a tail." But some of the Iraqis were clearly awed by the trappings of power: the twin armored limousines in the driveway with U.S. and Iraqi flags, and the gilded East Room bedecked with fresh flowers and prominent officials.
"You have a great country," remarked a radio reporter, one of the five Iraqi journalists traveling with Jafari, as he and his colleagues snapped photos of one another before the event.
Minutes later, the same Iraqi journalist exposed a yawning expectations gap between the Iraqis and the Americans. "When will you begin the reconstruction in Iraq?" he asked Bush -- a question that seemed to take the president, who has already sunk a couple of hundred billion dollars into the occupation, by surprise.
"We are spending reconstruction money," Bush said. "But, you know, you need to ask that to the government. They're in charge. It's your government, not ours."
That didn't satisfy Jafari, who stood beside the natty Bush in creased suit pants and well-worn tasseled loafers. "We hope that Mr. Bush will try to redo a Marshall Plan, calling it the Bush Plan, to help Iraq, to help the Iraqi people," he urged. "And this would be a very wonderful step." The president, by way of reply, said "Good job" and led the prime minister to lunch.