Bush Speech: Was It Enough?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, May 25, 2004; 10:55 AM

If the goal was simply to regain control of the message, then it may have worked -- at least for the moment.

The major news providers this morning all lead with imagery and stories out of President Bush's speech last night. From the White House perspective, that sure beats stories and picture of prison abuse and car bombs.

But to those looking for news, or details of an exit strategy, or a recalibration of the White House approach in Iraq, the speech was a bust. At best, some observers detected subtle shifts in Bush's message.

And on a purely theatrical level, the reviews weren't very good. Bush's delivery was largely lackluster and his pronunciation was off -- though his makeup was wizardly.

So was it enough? The stakes are high, both on the ground in Iraq and here at home, where Iraq could be life or death for Bush's re-election hopes.

Just hours before he gave his speech, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll came out showing Bush's approval rating at an all-time low due to fears that the United States is bogged down and rising criticism of his handling of the prison abuse scandal.

News and Analysis

Robin Wright and Mike Allen write in The Washington Post that "Bush did not provide the midcourse correction that even some Republicans had called for in the face of increasingly macabre violence in recent weeks. . . .

"Nor did Bush try to answer some of the looming questions that have triggered growing skepticism and anxiety at home and abroad about the final U.S. costs, the final length of stay for U.S. troops, or what the terms will be for a final U.S. exit from Iraq. After promising 'concrete steps,' the White House basically repackaged stalled U.S. policy as a five-step plan."

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "Bush's pledge to destroy the notorious prison was the symbolic highlight of a speech designed to convince an increasingly restive public that improvement is coming to Iraq despite a recent wave of violence and an international scandal sparked by images of U.S. troops abusing Iraqi prisoners. . . .

"Bush's address, while using many of the same arguments he has employed previously, represented a subtle shift in the way he discusses the U.S. tribulations in Iraq. He gave a more frank acknowledgment of the troubles facing U.S. forces, warning that 'there are difficult days ahead, and the way forward may sometimes appear chaotic.' "

In the New York Times, Elisabeth Bumiller calls attention to Bush's statement that his goal was to make Iraq's people "free, not to make them American."

In a New York Times news analysis, Richard W. Stevenson writes: "President Bush's speech on Monday night kicked off a critical five-week period in which the White House must not only make good on its pledge to return self-governance to the Iraqi people but also convince the American electorate that the benefits of deposing Saddam Hussein have outweighed the costs in blood, money and battered prestige.

"It is a tall order. . . . "

Judy Keen reminds her readers in USA Today of the context. "Bush said Iraq is at a critical moment. So is his presidency. Of the predictions he made before the war, only his warning that things wouldn't necessarily go smoothly has been fulfilled. No stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons have been found. Few Iraqis greeted U.S. troops as liberators. Restoring security and rebuilding government, business and social institutions has been a slow process. U.S. troops die almost daily. . . .

"A speech is not enough to remedy Bush's ills, but his advisers hope it is the beginning of a process that will demonstrate over the next few weeks that he has a handle on Iraq's problems -- and his own."

(USA Today also compiles and compares some wildly contrasting statements from the Bush team about Iraq.)

The Los Angeles Times speech package offered a different perspective. Maura Reynolds and Mary Curtius, under the headline "Bush Offers Plan to End Chaos in Iraq," write: "Bush's demeanor exuded confidence, but his words expressed more humility than in past speeches. Several times he acknowledged errors or miscalculations. Estimates of the number of needed troops were too low, he said. Iraqi forces 'fell short' in their performance and have needed more training. And Saddam Hussein's loyalists, instead of being killed or captured on the battlefield, 'melted into the civilian population' to regroup later."

And in his analysis for the LA Times, Ronald Brownstein writes: "President Bush offered Monday the most detailed explanation of his plan for moving Iraq from chaos to independence, increasing the pressure on his Democratic rival, Sen. John F. Kerry, to fill in an alternative vision for stabilizing the troubled country."

CNN's John King cut to the chase with Aaron Brown: "Yes, everything he said tonight was already known but the White House believes the American people have lost track of it because of the violence and because of the prisoner abuse scandal."

Later, Brown asked CNN analyst Jeff Greenfield: "Can a speech like this without a dramatic headline survive a news cycle?"

Greenfield replied: "Maybe it can survive a news cycle, although in this sped-up period with cable news and the Web, maybe not. But I think the point you're making is absolutely right. You know there is this notion that political spin doctors and pollsters and media experts and the Karl Roves of this world can somehow create magic.

"I think in this particular story -- war and peace -- you can't do it. What the president says, even with the bully pulpit, is way, way less important than what we're going to be seeing and if, over the next few months, what the president tells us is going to happen, happens. That's when you're going to see a turnaround in public opinion."

Poll Watch

Dan Balz and Richard Morin write in The Washington Post: "Public approval of President Bush's handling of the conflict in Iraq has dropped to its lowest point with growing fears that the United States is bogged down and rising criticism of Bush's handling of the prison abuse scandal, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News Poll. . . .

"Bush's overall job approval rating declined to 47 percent, the lowest the Post-ABC News polls have recorded since he took office, with 50 percent saying they disapprove. Just four in 10 Americans gave the president positive marks for his handling of Iraq, the lowest since he launched the conflict in March 2003."

Here's a graphic, clearly illustrating Bush's reversal of fortune.

Here's the data from this poll, and data showing trends over time .

There's a new CBS poll out, too. It shows that "41 percent approve of the job he is doing as President, while 52 percent disapprove -- the lowest overall job rating of his presidency. Two weeks ago, 44 percent approved. A year ago, nearly two-thirds did."

About the Delivery . . . and the Makeup

Tom Shales, Washington Post TV critic, writes: "Old Blue Tie was back, but not exactly in top form. . . .

"Bush didn't look terribly convinced by his own argument that the situation in Iraq is improving, nor did he appear all that thrilled by his five-point plan to bring about 'Iraqi freedom' in the future. . . .

"In addition to a generally lackluster delivery, Bush stumbled over the crucial name Abu Ghraib, the now infamous prison where grisly torture of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. troops has become an international scandal as well as an enormous embarrassment to the Bush administration."

Reuters breaks it down. "Bush mispronounced Abu Ghraib each of the three times he mentioned it while announcing U.S. plans to tear down the infamous jail and replace it with a new facility."

Reuters notes that English speakers usually pronounce it "abu-grabe."

"But the Republican president, long known for verbal and grammatical lapses, stumbled on the first try, calling it 'abugah-rayp'. The second version came out 'abu-garon', the third attempt sounded like 'abu-garah'."

Nevertheless, the president's makeup job was a resounding success. There was almost no sign of the facial scrapes and bruises Bush acquired in a weekend bicycle mishap.

Here's a picture from right before the speech, and one from after his makeup session.


Helen Kennedy of the New York Daily News credits "what looked like a smart copper/peach powder base."

Reaction Stories

In the New York Times, Carl Hulse looks at reaction to the speech and concludes: "President Bush's address on his strategy for Iraq failed on Monday night to convert Democrats who say the administration is mishandling the conflict and the looming transfer of power there, while Republicans said he presented a coherent plan for the weeks and months ahead."

All three non-congressional types he spoke to were critical. For instance, here's Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations: "This is not a new plan," he said. "It's the same vague plan we've been hearing about for months."

The Associated Press talked to just plain folks at a Jewish deli outside Boston, a kebab house outside Detroit, and a rural home in Indiana where parents are waiting for their son to come home from Iraq. The verdict: Mixed, mixed, mixed.

Michael Georgy of Reuters spoke to just plain folks in Baghdad. The verdict: Bitter. "Iraqis expressed little faith in American promises after months of occupation which many said had delivered only violence, a lack of basic services and a scandal over the inhumane treatment of prisoners by the U.S. military."

Leo Standora of the New York Daily News writes: "The father of a New York soldier killed in Iraq said last night that President Bush failed to tell him what he wanted to hear most -- a date when our troops are coming home."

CNN says the speech bombed in the Asian and Arab media.

Read and See for Yourself

For the short-attention-span set, here are excerpts from the speech; video excerpts; and excerpts from the Bush plan.

For the wonks, here are the full text of the speech, the full video rtsp://video.c-span.org//project/c04/c04052404_bush.rm and the full text of the plan.

Army War College -- Ring a Bell?

Trying to think why the Army War College, the setting for Bush's speech, sounds familiar?

The college served as a dandy backdrop for the commander in chief, with its audience of several hundred Army leaders there to learn about strategy, military science and other aspects of defense.

But the college made big news in January when it published a scathing report saying Bush's war in Iraq distracted from the war on terror.

In his Washington Post article back then, Tom Ricks wrote that the report "criticizes the Bush administration's handling of the war on terrorism, accusing it of taking a detour into an 'unnecessary' war in Iraq and pursuing an 'unrealistic' quest against terrorism that may lead to U.S. wars with states that pose no serious threat."

Here's the full text of that report.

Opinion Page Roundup

A quick look through today's editorial pages.

Washington Post: Last night's speech was, at least, a beginning and a commendable show of determination; but it's not clear that the president's rhetoric, or the steps he is planning, are vigorous enough to turn the situation around.

New York Times: "It's regrettable that this president is never going to admit any shortcomings, much less failure. That's an aspect of Mr. Bush's character that we have to live with. But we cannot live without a serious plan for doing more than just getting through the June 30 transition and then muddling along until the November elections in the United States."

Los Angeles Times: "Bush has promised more speeches. If he wants the confidence of Americans and Iraqis, more answers and more-specific plans are necessary."

USA Today: "It was the most detailed and convincing description of the president's Iraq policy to date . . . [b]ut beyond the small successes and grand plans lie formidable problems, which Bush touched on but didn't fully address. They range from a growing insurgency to a lack of international help."

Boston Globe: "Resolve is a start, but a successful Iraq policy will require of Bush realism and candor."

Chicago Tribune: "Obstacles remain. Doubters abound. But President Bush made it forcefully clear Monday night that neither he, his nation nor its most loyal allies will cut and run."

New York Daily News: "These have been difficult times. Over the next five weeks, and beyond, things could well get worse yet. But here's a plan in place -- evidence before all the world, and indeed proof through the night, that the flag is still there."

New York Post: "President Bush last night resolutely prepared the nation for the weeks ahead as the transition to Iraqi self- governance begins."

And a Few Other Opinionated Voices

Blogger Andrew Sullivan: "It's a beginning. He now has to make a version of it again and again and again. He is up against a press corps determined to make this transition fail, in order to defeat a Bush presidency. He will need true grit to withstand it."

David Frum, on National Review Online: "Effective speech last night, I thought. The great question mark hanging over Iraq is: Does the president know what he's doing? Does he have a plan?

"He replied to that question last night. Yes, he has a plan."

William Saletan in Slate: "Tonight, as he vowed to stay the course in Iraq, Bush demonstrated another mental defect: incomprehension of his role in history as a fallible human agent. Absent such comprehension, Bush can't fix his mistakes in Iraq because he can't see how -- or even that -- he screwed up."

Impeach Bush?

And, in other news, Thomas J. Lueck writes in the New York Times: "Ralph Nader, the independent candidate for president, condemned President George W. Bush yesterday as a 'messianic militarist' who should be impeached for pushing the nation into a war in Iraq 'based on false pretenses.' "

Today's Calendar

The president welcomes Iraqis receiving medical care in the United States into the Oval Office in the morning, then flies out to Youngstown, Ohio, for another one of his staged conversations, this one about health care.

Twins Watch

Diane Scarponi reports for the Associated Press that Barbara Bush, unlike her twin Jenna, didn't skip her graduation. And -- after all the denials -- her mother even attended, as well.

Here's a Hartford Courant photo of the first lady -- in the first row.

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