Has Bush Bottomed Out?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, June 2, 2004; 3:42 PM

White House officials would like you to know that the worst is over and President Bush is on a roll. After weeks of ugly headlines from Iraq, plunging approval ratings and a loss of message control, they say, things are all better now.

Robin Wright and Mike Allen write in The Washington Post: "Bush aides contended over the weekend that the president has bottomed out politically. They told White House allies in Washington that the new government [in Iraq] would mark a turning point by showing progress and would strengthen Bush for his meetings with European leaders later this week by putting Iraq's postwar future on a multinational track."

Yesterday morning, Bush turned what was initially advertised as brief remarks into an impromptu news conference in the Rose Garden. "I'm converting this into a full-blown press conference," he said cheerfully. "It's such a beautiful day."

Wright and Allen observe: "President Bush was almost giddily buoyant. . . . Not since the 'Mission Accomplished' photograph aboard the USS Lincoln on May 1 last year, when Bush declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq, has the administration appeared as upbeat about the future."

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "On Tuesday, the White House went all out to focus attention on its assertion that the formation of the interim government in Iraq represented major progress."

Here's the text and video of Bush's Rose Garden news conference.

Wishful Thinking?

But could this all just be a lot of spin?

As Wright and Allen put it: "[T]he relief visible at the White House yesterday may be short-lived, for the United States still faces serious obstacles."

For instance, the prisoner abuse scandal is not over.

And Iraq is still volatile. As Terry Moran of ABC News says: "But for all the optimism, major questions about the U.S. mission in Iraq remain unanswered. Who will control the combat operations . . . ? When and how will Iraq's many private militias . . . be disbanded? And of course when will the U.S. leave?"

Bush speaks today at the Air Force Academy commencement in Colorado. Look to see if, unlike at last week's speech at the Army War College, he includes new details about U.S. plans.

And the big question for today: Will the World War II analogy fly? Or will it bomb?

The WWII Analogy

Wright and Allen also write: "Bush will try to generate further momentum behind his Iraq policy today at the Air Force Academy commencement address, when he delivers the second of a weekly series of Iraq speeches until the transition. He will detail his view of how Iraq fits into the broader war on terrorism and why the stakes are high. He plans to argue that the war is a clash of ideologies between the civilized world and al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists, and will describe similarities and differences between this war and World War II, U.S. officials said."

David Morgan writes for Reuters that Bush "will compare his administration's war on terror to World War Two and cast the Middle East as a critical front akin to war-time Europe, during a commencement address at the U.S. Air Force Academy, a senior White House official said."

But are the lines between good and evil as clear today as they were then?

WWII and the Upcoming Trip to Europe

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush leaves for Europe tomorrow feeling the tug of two wars.

"As he has done before, Bush will try to link World War II themes -- the struggles of good and evil, right and wrong, democracy and totalitarianism -- to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. . . .

"But opinion polls in Europe show that since the Iraq war began, the public there has grown distrustful of the United States, dismissive of Bush and even suspicious about U.S. motives in the war on terrorism."

AFP notes "The United States warned Americans in Italy of the 'potential for violence' this week during a visit to the country by US President George W. Bush, which is expected to draw large anti-war demonstrations."

And Steve Holland of Reuters notes that Bush will meet the pope, who was one of the harshest critics of the war in Iraq.

Here's the text of national security adviser Condoleezza Rice's briefing on the trip yesterday.

Plausible Deniability

Bill Sammon writes in the Washington Times: "President Bush yesterday said he had nothing to do with the selection of Iraq's interim government and insisted that the new leaders are not puppets of the U.S. government."

Here's Bush: "I had no role. I mean, occasionally, somebody said, this person may be interested, or that -- but I had no role in picking, zero."

But did anybody really think that Bush himself, the non-micromanager, got personally involved in the decisions?

Left unanswered is the extent to which others at the White House, or State Department, or Defense Department, or CIA -- working in his name -- were instrumental in the installation of the new government.

CEO President

Speaking of management styles, Mike Allen of The Washington Post writes that Bush's CEO approach to the presidency has its weaknesses.

"President Bush has long prided himself for focusing on big goals rather than on niggling details and delegating significant responsibility to his aides. But his belated attention to the brutality at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison has revealed vulnerabilities in a management style that had brought him personal and political success."

Allen writes that White House insiders blame the military for letting Bush down. "Outsiders, including some Republicans who speak forlornly about the debacle, said the Abu Ghraib scandal is the price Bush is paying for lacking curiosity and showing unwillingness to delve into potential roadblocks to his larger mission."

Umbrella Management

Perhaps Bush should have delegated the holding of his umbrella, as he boarded Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base yesterday.

From the pool report by Greg Hitt of the Wall Street Journal: "The president's helicopter landed at Andrews in a gusting rain. As he stepped off, he opened his own umbrella -- and it immediately popped inside out. Bush wrestled it all the way to AF1, before handing it over to the officer accompanying him, still inside out."

As this remarkable sequence of photos suggests, it may just be time for a White House Briefing caption contest.

Once He Arrived in Denver

Karen E. Crummy writes in the Denver Post that Bush arrived in Denver last night in time to raise $2.2 million for Republican candidates at a fundraiser.

Crummy also provides some backdrop to today's speech at the Air Force Academy.

"His commencement speech comes roughly a year after the school became embroiled in a scandal involving dozens of cases of sexual misconduct, including rape. More recently, the elite military academy faced a cheating scandal as well.

"Before his address, the president is scheduled to meet with James Dobson, head of the Christian group Focus on the Family."

Halliburton Watch

Robert O'Harrow Jr. writes in The Washington Post about the fallout from Time magazine's revelation of an e-mail suggesting that the granting of a multi-billion contract to Halliburton was coordinated with the company's former CEO, Vice President Cheney.

"Democrats in Congress seized on the e-mail to revive allegations about a Cheney role in the Halliburton contract," O'Harrow writes. "Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), ranking minority member of the House Committee on Government Reform, asked Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to provide details about officials involved in the decision to award the contract and for 'unredacted copies of all communications' between the Pentagon and White House about Halliburton contracts."

Here is the text of the Waxman letter.

Guilty Conscience Watch

"Somehow this makes me very nervous to be surrounded by this many law enforcement officers."

That's Cheney, in a speech in Kansas City yesterday, which was otherwise largely an attack on Sen. John Kerry's position on the Patriot Act. Here's the text.

Based on Faith

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "In 40 minutes of mostly off-the-cuff and impassioned remarks to a White House Conference on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, Mr. Bush gave a pep talk to religious groups seeking money that his administration has made available to them for programs for drug addicts, alcoholics, children of prisoners and others."

Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post: "Bush spoke to the group, at times adopting the rapid cadence of a Baptist preacher, and was greeted with hearty responses of 'Amen!' and 'Yes!' "

Here is the text of Bush's remarks. And here is a new executive order establishing faith-based offices at the departments of Commerce and Veterans Affairs and the Small Business Administration.

Peter Wallsten of the Los Angeles Times stayed for another speaker, and filed this story: "The head of the White House's faith-based initiatives program said Tuesday that a 'culture war' was dividing the Bush administration and its critics who challenge the constitutionality of mixing church and state.

" 'It's true that much attention is being placed on the war in Iraq, but there's also another war that's going on,' said Jim Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, during a conference promoting the funding of religious groups engaged in social service activities. 'It's a culture war that really gets to the heart of the questions about what is the role of faith in the public square.' "

Culture war -- them's fighting words.

Towey will be a guest on Ask the White House today at 3 p.m. ET.

Talk to Me

I will be Live Online today at 2 p.m. ET, taking your questions and comments.

Also: Have you seen something on the Web about the White House that I should be linking to? Send it to me.

White House Frequently Unanswered Questions

I asked readers last week to e-mail me questions that they had sent to "E-mail the White House" -- but not gotten an answer to.

Here's a couple. Keep 'em coming.

"Since the war in Iraq is deemed to be vital to the war on terror and in our national interest, why aren't the President's daughters serving in the armed forces and on active duty in Iraq? For that matter are children of any member of the president's staff on duty in Iraq?" (Jose Rodriguez, Massachusetts)

"You advocated tax cuts in order to create jobs. In 2003 you and Vice President Cheney together earned more money in 2003 than you did in 2002. However, due mainly to the tax cuts, you paid $129,276 less in federal taxes in 2003 than you did in 2002. How did putting an extra $129,276 in your pockets help U.S. employment? Did you use the windfall to hire anyone? Or maybe, it's as the White House Web site describes, tax cuts are to increase 'consumer spending . . . to boost the economic recovery and create jobs.' So what did you and Cheney buy with the money? Did you buy something that was made in the USA or China?" (Ray Lassing, Grass Valley, Calif.)

Trophy Room

Richard Leiby writes in The Washington Post's Reliable Source column: "The pistol wielded by Saddam Hussein when he was captured in his spider hole last year isn't the only war relic President Bush is fond of showing visitors to the White House. Recent guests tell us that Bush proudly displays two other iconic items in a study off the Oval Office: a brick from Taliban leader Mohammad Omar's home in Kandahar, and a roughly two-foot-high cross made of steel recovered from the World Trade Center wreckage. . . .

"The collection isn't entirely somber. It also includes a few bobble-head dolls depicting the president -- which, we're told, Bush likes to flick with his finger for guests' amusement."


Judith Weinraub profiles White House Executive Pastry Chef Roland Mesnier in The Washington Post. Mesnier is leaving at the end of July.

"Mesnier has been White House pastry chef since Rosalynn Carter hired him in 1979. For most of that time, he's been working flat out, squeezing in days off around the needs of the first families and their diplomatic and social obligations. . . .

"His first self-imposed task was getting rid of any sweet not made at the White House. 'It was a common thing to order cookies for 300 people,' he says. 'I didn't see that with a very kind eye. Besides, everyone knows guests steal things. When they took cookies, I wanted them to be cookies made at the White House.' "

In an accompanying story, Mesnier dishes on his clients.

"The current president is a chocolate or carrot cake and ice cream man. 'He doesn't like froufrou food,' says Mesnier. Laura Bush favors more dainty, sophisticated desserts -- 'especially for guests.' "

Invective Watch

James G. Lakely writes in the Washington Times: "Wartime presidents have always been the target of criticism from their political opponents, especially in election years. But many observers say the level of invective lobbed at President Bush has escalated to a new and dangerous level."

Lakely quotes Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia: "Never before in time of war, when soldiers are dying, has this kind of vocal criticism by party leaders been directed at an administration. . . . They should be ashamed of themselves. It's just criminal; it is profane."

Michael Moore Watch

John Horn writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Michael Moore's documentary, 'Fahrenheit 9/11,' will open in about 1,000 U.S. theaters June 25, and a trailer promoting the expedited release could hit the Internet by the end of this week."

Correction Watch

From the Los Angeles Times:

"An article about state Sen. Jim Brulte in Tuesday's California section mistakenly referred to the White House Correspondents' Assn. as the White House Correspondence Assn."

Lessons of the Past

Bill Adair of the St. Petersburg Times writes: "Two years ago, White House political czar Karl Rove sent Matthew Dowd on a secret mission.

"Dowd, a top Republican strategist, was sent to the libraries for presidents Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George Bush to study old memos, polling reports and organizational charts. His goal: to help the Bush-Cheney campaign learn the lessons of the past. . . .

"The hundreds of old papers revealed the problems of unclear leadership (Bush 1992), the danger of failing to respond to voters' concerns (Ford 1976) and the risk of starting late (Bush 1992). Those lessons have been incorporated into the Bush-Cheney campaign and can be seen in its early, aggressive start."

Dress Code Watch


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