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Bush Can't Make the Sale

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, July 24, 2007; 12:52 PM

President Bush is having no success in getting the American public to support him on Iraq.

White House aides have pulled out all the stops in what may be the last and most important sales job of the Bush presidency. They've assembled friendly audiences in rebuttal-free zones all across the country so that the self-styled " Educator-in-Chief" can "help our fellow citizens understand why I've made some of the decisions I've made" and remind them of this salient fact: "I'm an optimistic person."

Much of the media coverage -- particularly on TV -- dutifully relates his constantly repeated assertions and predictions as if they were new and credible. Still, it doesn't work.

His optimism is falling flat because it's untethered from reality. The public is rejecting his message because it doesn't believe him or what he's selling. In fact, according to the latest polls, an overwhelming majority of Americans have lost faith in both the war and the president's ability to lead it.

And He's a Lousy Salesman

Steven Thomma writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "President Bush now has what he asked for -- time to sell the people and the Congress on the Iraq war.

"But an extra 60 days from Congress, the addition of the talented Ed Gillespie to run the White House communications strategy, and a newly ramped-up sales pitch cannot change the underlying fact: George Bush is a poor salesman.

"He's never really sold the country or Congress something it didn't already want. And when he's tried to sell something the people or the politicians didn't want, he's fallen flat."

Thomma cites immigration and Social Security as examples of Bush's failures. "Bush has had successes, but they probably falsely inflated his sense of his sales skills. In reality, they were relatively easy sales," Thomma writes.

"[N]ow his credibility is shot, thanks to his success at misleading the country into war. His political capital is exhausted. His dismally low approval rating has many Republicans more scared of standing with Bush than of standing against him. And he still lacks the oratorical skill of a Ronald Reagan or John F. Kennedy to rally the nation to any cause it doesn't already embrace.

"Thus he's waging a defensive campaign just to hold onto what support he has."

Poll Watch

Jon Cohen and Dan Balz write in The Washington Post: "Most Americans see President Bush as intransigent on Iraq and prefer that the Democratic-controlled Congress make decisions about a possible withdrawal of U.S. forces, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. . . .

"[B]y a large margin, Americans trust Democrats rather than the president to find a solution to a conflict that remains enormously unpopular. . . .

"Many would like Congress to assert itself on Iraq, and about half of poll respondents said congressional Democrats have done 'too little' to get Bush to change his war policy. . . .

"Bush's overall approval rating equals its all-time low in Post-ABC News polls at 33 percent, with 65 percent disapproving. Fifty-two percent said they 'strongly' disapprove of his job performance, the highest figure of his presidency and more than three times the 16 percent who strongly approve.

Some highlights from the poll results, in order of increasing popularity:

* 55 percent support legislation that would set a deadline for withdrawing U.S. forces by next spring.

* 59 percent agree that the United States should withdraw its military forces from Iraq in order to avoid further U.S. military casualties, even if that means civil order is not restored there.

* 62 percent think Congress -- not Bush -- should have final say in deciding when to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq.

* 65 percent support creating new rules on troop training and rest time that would limit the number of troops available for duty in Iraq.

* 74 percent support changing the primary mission of U.S. forces in Iraq to supporting and training the Iraqi Army, rather than directly fighting insurgents.

* 75 percent think the surge has either not made much difference or has made things worse.

* 78 percent think Bush is not willing enough to change his administration's policies in Iraq.

And here are some similar findings from a new New York Times poll:

* 63 percent think Congress should only allow funding for the war on the condition that the U.S. sets a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops (another 8 percent think Congress should block funding altogether.)

* 66 percent support either decreasing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq or removing them altogether.

* 73 percent think the surge has either not made much difference or has made things worse.

And 44 percent of Americans think U.S. involvement in Iraq is creating more terrorists who are planning to attack the U.S -- compared to 18 percent who think it is eliminating terrorists who were planning to attack the U.S.

Two Key Departures

In less than two months, several Republicans have threatened to abandon Bush on Iraq unless he can show signs of success -- and of course there are less than 18 months left in his presidency. But while it's crunch time at the White House, more of Bush's key aides are leaving, their goals not only unmet but unattainable.

As Michael A. Fletcher reported in The Washington Post yesterday: "After two years at the White House as a strategic adviser on national security, Peter D. Feaver is heading back to Duke University to teach international relations."

It was Feaver's research in public opinion that inspired the White House's strategy to emphasize optimism even in the face of disaster.

As Peter Baker and Dan Balz wrote in a seminal Post story two years ago: "When President Bush confidently predicts victory in Iraq and admits no mistakes, admirers see steely resolve and critics see exasperating stubbornness. But the president's full-speed-ahead message articulated in this week's prime-time address also reflects a purposeful strategy based on extensive study of public opinion about how to maintain support for a costly and problem-plagued military mission. . . .

"Behind the president's speech is a conviction among White House officials that the battle for public opinion on Iraq hinges on their success in convincing Americans that, whatever their views of going to war in the first place, the conflict there must and can be won."

That was Feaver's work. But it turns out that reality matters. And now Feaver is slinking back to North Carolina.

And while Scott Sforza's resignation last week went unmentioned by the press corps, his departure may be an even more potent metaphor for a White House that has lost its ability to persuade.

Sforza, a former TV producer, was responsible for visual image control at the White House. His calling card was majestic backdrops intended to imbue Bush with an aura of invincibility. His most famous achievement, of course, was the " Mission Accomplished" banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier

As Elisabeth Bumiller wrote in the New York Times in May 2003: "George W. Bush's 'Top Gun' landing on the deck of the carrier Abraham Lincoln will be remembered as one of the most audacious moments of presidential theater in American history. But it was only the latest example of how the Bush administration, going far beyond the foundations in stagecraft set by the Reagan White House, is using the powers of television and technology to promote a presidency like never before...

"Media strategists noted afterward that Mr. Sforza and his aides had choreographed every aspect of the event, even down to the members of the Lincoln crew arrayed in coordinated shirt colors over Mr. Bush's right shoulder and the 'Mission Accomplished' banner placed to perfectly capture the president and the celebratory two words in a single shot. The speech was specifically timed for what image makers call 'magic hour light,' which cast a golden glow on Mr. Bush."

Four years later, of course, that same image is a potent symbol of Bush's failure and delusion. Once again, reality matters.

Backdrops remain an obsession with this White House, but there is no place for glorious Sforzian ones anymore. They just call attention to the president's shortcomings.

Bush's Confidence

Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column: "In a coordinated public relations offensive, the White House is using reliably friendly pundits -- amazingly, they still exist -- to put out the word that President Bush is as upbeat and confident as ever. It might even be true.

"What I don't understand is why we're supposed to consider Bush's continuing confidence a good thing."

Bush's confidence "shows he has lost touch with reality," Krugman writes. "Actually, it's not clear that he ever was in touch with reality. . . .

"Yet while Bush no longer has many true believers, he still has plenty of enablers"

And one of those enablers, of course, is William Kristol -- whose enabling is apparently much appreciated. Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "Bill Kristol's the-war-is-being-won piece in The Washington Post brought him plenty of ridicule, but at least one person liked it.

"President Bush read the July 15 Outlook article that morning and recommended it to his staff."

No Plan B

The ultimate example of Bush's intransigence on the war is his refusal to contemplate a Plan B.

Last week, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton asked the Pentagon about what planning if any it had done for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. Undersecretary Eric Edelman responded by saying public discussion of such matters "reinforces enemy propaganda."

But what if the surge isn't working? What if it's time to start pulling out? What can be done to minimize the risks to Iraqis and Americans alike? Apparently, those questions are not welcome in Bush's government.

As Thom Shanker and David S. Cloud wrote in the New York Times after a Senate hearing last week: "Senator Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, quizzed [ambassador to Iraq Ryan] Crocker about the ambassador's role in any planning under way at the National Security Council, State Department or Pentagon for the revised strategy in Iraq once the troop increase had run its course.

"The ambassador said his efforts were devoted solely to carrying out the current strategy. 'I am not aware of these efforts and my whole focus is involved in the implementation of Plan A,' Mr. Crocker said."

Even more amazingly, despite their avowals that they've given other scenarios no serious thought, Bush and his aides confidently predict that absolutely every other approach but their own would lead to disaster. For instance, Crocker "warned that any decrease of American forces in Iraq not based on improved conditions would invite increased terrorist violence and risk countrywide chaos."

As for Plan A planning, that's going ahead.

Michael R. Gordon writes in the New York Times: "While Washington is mired in political debate over the future of Iraq, the American command here has prepared a detailed plan that foresees a significant American role for the next two years.

"The classified plan, which represents the coordinated strategy of the top American commander and the American ambassador, calls for restoring security in local areas, including Baghdad, by the summer of 2008. 'Sustainable security' is to be established on a nationwide basis by the summer of 2009, according to American officials familiar with the document.

"The detailed document, known as the Joint Campaign Plan, is an elaboration of the new strategy President Bush signaled in January when he decided to send five additional American combat brigades and other units to Iraq. That signaled a shift from the previous strategy, which emphasized transferring to Iraqis the responsibility for safeguarding their security."

Gordon, a reliable conduit of administration leaks, goes on to acknowledge briefly some of the challenges involved in achieving success: "The goals in the document appear ambitious, given the immensity of the challenge of dealing with die-hard Sunni insurgents, renegade Shiite militias, Iraqi leaders who have made only fitful progress toward political reconciliation, as well as Iranian and Syrian neighbors who have not hesitated to interfere in Iraq's affairs."

Where are the Generals?

Ralph Peters writes in a USA Today opinion piece: "Our current system of selecting generals produces George Pattons in bulk. But it hasn't produced another George Marshall, the general who had the ethical force to disagree -- respectfully -- with his president when victory was at stake.

"Decades of observation of our generals taught me that battlefield lions turn to jellyfish in Washington. Our elected leaders, ever fewer of whom have served in uniform, do not get frank, direct and routine military advice.

"Sixty years of misguided 'reforms' emplaced multiple buffers between the president and his top generals. Given the number of White House gatekeepers today, the relationship that Gen. Marshall had with FDR would be impossible -- unless the president wanted it, which today's presidents don't. . . .

"The generals' greatest shortcoming, though, is that they failed in their duty to inform decision-makers as to what war means and requires, to give honest advice -- and to keep on giving it, even at the cost of their careers."

And in the column noted above, Krugman includes Gen. David Petraeus among Bush's enablers: "I don't know why the op-ed article that Petraeus published in the Washington Post on Sept. 26, 2004, hasn't gotten more attention. After all, it puts to rest any notion that the general stands above politics: I don't think it's standard practice for serving military officers to publish opinion pieces that are strikingly helpful to an incumbent, six weeks before a national election."

Rhetorical Battles

The high ground in the rhetorical war over the war is supporting the troops. So each side is trying to cast the other as anti-troop.

Here's Bush on Friday in the Rose Garden: "It is time to rise above partisanship, stand behind our troops in the field, and give them everything they need to succeed. . . .

"Even members of Congress who no longer support our effort in Iraq should at least be able to provide an increase in pay for our troops fighting there."

Here's the response from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid: "Democrats and a majority of Americans believe that supporting the troops means rebuilding our overburdened military and redeploying our troops from an Iraqi civil war. . . .

"If our military's well-being were truly a priority for this President, as he indicated this morning, why has his Administration for the past several months opposed military pay raises as too costly and blocked everything we have done to support the troops? I hope, but highly doubt, that President Bush will one day realize that supporting our troops is more than a slogan or a photo op."

The Only Issue

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush and his top Cabinet secretaries are scaling back their personal diplomacy around the world to focus more intently on Iraq and the rest of the Middle East as the administration concentrates its energy on top priorities for the president's last 18 months in office.

"In the past two weeks, Bush canceled a summit with Southeast Asian leaders in Singapore, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice scrapped a trip to Africa and decided to skip a meeting in the Philippines, and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates put off a swing through Latin America. . . .

"The decisions underscore how much Iraq and the turmoil in the Middle East have come to consume Bush's presidency and threaten his ability to forge a lasting legacy. The canceled trips have fueled discontent in regions that have long felt snubbed by Bush, and U.S. diplomats and scholars warn of lasting damage. . . .

"While the Bush team has waged war in Iraq, China has expanded its global influence, Russia has been reborn as an increasingly authoritarian and antagonistic power, and anti-Americanism has spread in Latin America."

Politicization Watch

Paul Kane writes for The Washington Post: "White House aides have conducted at least half a dozen political briefings for the Bush administration's top diplomats, including a PowerPoint presentation for ambassadors with senior adviser Karl Rove that named Democratic incumbents targeted for defeat in 2008 and a 'general political briefing' at the Peace Corps headquarters after the 2002 midterm elections.

"The briefings, mostly run by Rove's deputies at the White House political affairs office, began in early 2001 and included detailed analyses for senior officials of the political landscape surrounding critical congressional and gubernatorial races, according to documents obtained by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. . . .

"In a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, asked whether the briefings inappropriately politicized the diplomatic agencies or violated prohibitions against political work by most federal employees.

"'I do not understand why ambassadors, in Washington on official duty, would be briefed by White House officials on which Democratic House members are considered top targets by the Republican party for defeat in 2008. Nor do I understand why department employees would need to be briefed on 'key media markets' in states that are 'competitive' for the president,' Biden wrote."

Subpoena Watch

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "The House Judiciary Committee announced yesterday that it will press toward a constitutional showdown with the Bush administration over the U.S. attorney firings scandal, even as embattled Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales vowed to stay on and 'fix the problems' that have damaged the reputation and morale of the Justice Department.

"John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), chairman of the committee, said it will vote on Wednesday on contempt citations for the White House chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten, and former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers. Both refused congressional demands for information on the dismissals after President Bush invoked executive privilege.

"The move puts House Democrats on a legal collision course with the White House, which said last week that it will not allow the Justice Department to prosecute executive branch officials for being in contempt of Congress."

Spending Watch

Robert Pear writes in the New York Times: "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, have asked for a meeting with President Bush to see if they can work out an agreement on spending bills for the fiscal year that begins in 10 weeks. But lawmakers from both parties said they saw no obvious way to overcome the current stalemate with the White House.

"The House has passed 8 of the 12 regular appropriations bills for 2008, and Mr. Bush threatened to veto 5 of them, on the ground that they called for 'an irresponsible and excessive level of spending.' . . .

"In a letter to the president, Ms. Pelosi of California and Mr. Reid of Nevada said they hoped to reach an agreement with the White House to 'avoid a protracted battle over relatively small differences.' The disagreement, they said, involves less than 1 percent of the federal budget, about $22 billion in a budget of $2.9 trillion."

Continuity of Secrecy

The editorial board of the Register-Guard of Eugene, Ore., writes: "If the Bush administration wanted to fuel conspiracy theories about its classified plan for maintaining governmental control in the wake of an apocalyptic terror attack, it could not have come up with a better strategy than refusing to let Congressman Peter DeFazio examine it. . . .

"Given the Bush administration's penchant for secrecy and history of favoring the steady expansion of presidential powers, some have suggested the policy may be written in such a manner that makes it too easy to invoke presidential powers such as martial law.

"By denying DeFazio's reasonable request to view these documents, the White House has done much to encourage and nothing to quell such speculation. The administration would be wise to reverse its decision and allow DeFazio, or any other member of Congress with the required clearance, full and immediate access.

"If the White House doesn't do so, the American public is left with this unsettling thought from Congressman DeFazio: 'Maybe the people who think there's a conspiracy out there are right.'"

Colon Watch

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "Doctors found no cancer in the five small growths removed from President Bush's colon, the White House said Monday."

The 50th State

Evan Lehmann writes in the Berkshire (Mass.) Eagle: 'President Bush has crisscrossed the country. He has biked in Maryland, fished in Maine and, just last week, visited a bun-baking operation in Tennessee.

"Indeed, almost seven years into his presidency, George W. Bush has set foot in all of the nation's states -- well, almost all. Vermont is the exception.

"His itinerary could be influenced by the fact that the state has only three electoral votes -- tied for the lowest -- and that it is home to vigorous political opponents, such as U.S. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy. It also hosts one of the president's lowest approval ratings in the nation.

"Known for choosing friendly audiences, Bush would find no military bases on which to rally pep. . . .

"Professor Garrison Nelson at the University of Vermont in Burlington noted: 'There's no point. He'd show up and get booed and yelled at.'"

Some Roundtable

Christopher Lee writes in The Washington Post: "The entrepreneur who hosted President Bush last week for a roundtable discussion on health care and small business said yesterday that he could barely get a word in as Bush opined on children's health insurance and other health topics.

"If he had, Clifton Broumand would have told the president he disagreed with him on most of it, he said.

"'He answered his own questions,' said Broumand, who gave Bush a tour of Man and Machine Inc., the Landover-based medical computer accessory company he founded 25 years ago. 'I thought the whole concept was to ask us, so I was a little bit frustrated. I would have liked the opportunity to give him my viewpoint, rather than him knowing the answer.'

"Bush used the occasion -- a discussion with three small-business owners -- to denounce efforts in Congress to expand the popular State Children's Health Insurance Program by $35 billion or more over the next five years. . . .

"Tony Fratto, a White House spokesman, said the fact that Broumand disagrees with the president shows that the administration does not stack Bush's public events with partisans."

Late Night Humor

Jon Stewart explores what Bush is and isn't -- using the president's own words.

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on Bush's clever plan; Pat Oliphant's colonoscopy fantasy; Tony Auth on our failed wizard; John Sherffius's message from the Founding Fathers.

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