NEWS | OPINIONS | SPORTS | ARTS & LIVING | Discussions | Photos & Video | City Guide | CLASSIFIEDS | JOBS | CARS | REAL ESTATE
The Hardest Sell

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, January 9, 2007; 4:16 PM

One should never underestimate the sheer volume of a president's megaphone. But beyond a certain point, it really does matter what he says.

It is clear by now that President Bush has no interest in heeding all the calls to reverse course in Iraq and that in tomorrow night's speech he will call for an escalation, not an exit.

But how will he convince American voters -- and the Democratic Congress -- to give him another shot? The public is so unhappy with the situation in Iraq and so deeply mistrustful of Bush's leadership there that yet another razzle-dazzle PR blitz with the same stale talking points just isn't likely to do the trick.

The big question, therefore, is how Bush will deliver his message tomorrow, and whether he'll respond to all the skepticism out there by being more candid and forthcoming.

Will the president continue with his divisive, dismissive and deceptive rhetoric -- or will he level with the American people, engage his critics and forthrightly explore the risks and rewards of his plan? Because if he does the latter, he just might restore some of his credibility on this important issue and win back some public support.

Here are some of the things to keep an eye out for tomorrow night:

* Will he acknowledge the real, specific concerns that many Americans have with this particular war and the way it's been waged? Or will he once again belittle the public angst by ascribing it to too much carnage on TV and a general aversion to warfare?

* Will he engage and address the actual arguments voiced by critics? Or will he simply fight straw men of his own creation?

* Specifically, will he acknowledge the argument that the presence of American troops makes things worse in Iraq, rather than better?

* Will he acknowledge the message American voters sent about Iraq in November, and explain why he doesn't feel obliged to heed the public will? Will he explain why he and the public seem to have reached such different conclusions?

* Will he agree to engage in dialogue -- not just consultation -- with those who disagree with him, and possibly even in public?

* Will he be up front about the possible consequences of a failed escalation -- specifically, the cost in human lives? Will he acknowledge the human suffering?

* Will he be honest about the difference between tactics, strategy and goals, and will he explain why he seems willing to consider only a change in tactics?

* Will he be forthright about how we got here? Will he acknowledge any mistakes, beyond tactical errors that were not his fault personally? What lessons will he say he has learned? Will he take any blame for anything?

* Will he explain where the additional troops will come from? Will he call for volunteers? Will he call for anyone else to sacrifice?

* Will he say where the money will come from -- for the escalation, for the reportedly billion-dollar jobs program, or for the entire war for that matter?

* Will he say anything about how long either the escalation, or the war, will last? If he establishes benchmarks, will they be accompanied by timelines and consequences? Will there be any accountability, for either the Iraqis or the Americans? At the end of the speech, will the American military commitment appear larger but still equally open-ended?

* Will he say not just that he still believes the war in Iraq is winnable, but why he believes that, and why he discounts the evidence to the contrary?

* Will he be up front about who we're fighting and why? Will he acknowledge that the chief mission of existing and supplemental troops will be fighting well-armed rival Muslim factions?

* Will he acknowledge how the mission in Iraq has changed, from ostensibly being about weapons of mass destruction all the way to tamping down a civil war?

* Will he address the hideously botched execution of Saddam Hussein, which provided such a gripping view of the vicious sectarianism plaguing the country?

* Will he acknowledge that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has repeatedly made promises and not delivered in the past, and explain why he trusts Maliki this time?

* Will he acknowledge that Iraqi forces have never taken their share of the responsibility in Iraq, and that training has thus far been problematic?

* If he says this is a turning point, will he explain why, in contrast to all the previous turning points, he believes this one is for real?

* Will he describe how his view of the situation in Iraq has changed over time, if at all? Will he address the concern that he has been in a state of denial?

Bush faces two not entirely overlapping problems tomorrow night: One is that most Americans don't believe him any more; the other is that most Americans don't support his plan. Only if he can make some headway on the first problem will he ever make any on the second.

Poll Watch

So who will Bush be speaking to tomorrow?

Susan Page writes in USA Today: "President Bush will outline his 'new way forward' in Iraq Wednesday to a nation that overwhelmingly opposes sending more U.S. troops and is increasingly skeptical that the war can be won. . . .

"Those surveyed oppose the idea of increased troop levels by 61%-36%. Approval of the job Bush is doing in Iraq has sunk to 26%, a record low.

"Among key findings:

"·Nearly half of those surveyed say the United States can't achieve its goals in Iraq regardless of how many troops it sends. One in four say U.S. goals can be achieved only with an increase in troop numbers.

"·Eight in 10 say the war has gone worse than the Bush administration expected. Of those people, 53% say Bush deserves 'a great deal' of blame; 41% place a great deal of blame on Iraqi political leaders."

Here's more from Gallup. A majority of respondents support either an immediate withdrawal (15 percent) or a withdrawal in 12 months (39 percent). That's compared to 31 percent who support maintaining troops until the job is done and 12 percent who prefer sending more troops.

The Pitch

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush yesterday began promoting his plan to send more troops to Iraq, bringing more than 30 Republican senators to the White House as part of a major campaign to rally the American people behind another effort to stabilize the country.

"Senators who met with Bush said the president made it clear that he is planning to add as many as 20,000 U.S. troops to help quell violence in Baghdad. They also said the president is arguing that his new plan has a better chance for success than past plans because of a greater willingness of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to commit Iraqi forces against all perpetrators of violence, including Shiite militias. . . .

"Even administration officials and friendly Republicans said the bar is much higher for Bush than with past speeches on Iraq, given the widespread disenchantment over the war and the deep skepticism, shared even by some Republicans, that more troops are part of the answer. . . .

"As they began previewing the speech, administration aides indicated that the president plans to address the skepticism head-on. They indicated that he will talk about the lessons the United States has learned from the past several years of failing to quell the insurgency, as well as explain why he has confidence that the Maliki government can deliver on promises that it has not met so far."

But so far, Bush hasn't made that case convincingly -- even to Republican senators.

"Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) said the president was asked during her meeting what would be different about his new plan, and he replied that Maliki has had a 'sea change' in attitude. But she said she came away unconvinced."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "The White House is planning an aggressive effort to sell Congress and the American public on President Bush's new strategy for Iraq, beginning with a prime-time address to the nation on Wednesday night, followed Thursday by a presidential trip to Fort Benning, Ga., and appearances on Capitol Hill by the secretaries of state and defense.

"With Democrats vowing to oppose any plan to send more troops to Iraq, and some Republicans openly skeptical, Mr. Bush and his aides are already in the thick of an intense sales pitch. . . .

"White House officials were still planning details of the speech on Monday. The president's aides were contemplating having Mr. Bush deliver it from the White House Map Room, a site replete with the history and imagery of World War II -- imagery that Mr. Bush has invoked as he has sought to compare the campaign against terrorism to the struggle against totalitarianism and the Nazis. But the Oval Office, a more traditional setting, was also being considered."

David Jackson writes in USA Today that presidential counselor Dan Bartlett said the address will explain a new strategy and try to convince the country that failure in Iraq would undermine national security.

"Bartlett played down expectations for Bush's speech. 'Facts on the ground and events determine public opinion more than anything,' he says."

The Democrats

Jeff Zeleny writes in the New York Times: "The new Democratic majority in Congress is divided over how to assert its power in opposing President Bush's plan to send more troops to Baghdad, as leaders explore ways to block financing for a military expansion without being accused of abandoning American forces already in Iraq.

"While Democrats find themselves unusually united in their resistance to a troop increase, party leaders are locked in an internal debate over how far to go in objecting to the administration's Iraq strategy. . . .

"In the most aggressive of the new tactics, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, has said he will introduce legislation on Tuesday to require the president to gain new Congressional authority before sending more troops to Iraq. The bill is the first proposal in the Senate that would prohibit paying for an increase in American troops over their level on Jan. 1."

Alan Wirzbicki writes in the Boston Globe: "If Congress blocks funding for a surge in troops for Baghdad, as some Democrats are considering, President Bush would have little choice but to follow the law, legal specialists said yesterday.

"Bush and Congress have sparred before over whether the president's war powers allow him to authorize wiretappings or evade bans on torture, but legal specialists said there is far less ambiguity when it comes to spending money: The Constitution explicitly makes Congress responsible for appropriating funds."

The biggest hurdle: "If Democrats were to pass legislation blocking the troop surge, Bush would almost certainly veto it, which means that Democrats would have to win over many Republicans to muster the two-thirds vote needed to override presidential vetoes."

Astonishingly, even legal scholars normally sympathetic to the executive branch told Wirzbicki that Congress could stop the war by choking off funding.

"John Yoo, a Berkeley law professor and one of the chief architects of the Bush administration's aggressive stance on the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay prison, said that the power of Congress over the budget was absolute, to such an extent that lawmakers could end the war altogether if they chose."

David Rogers writes in the Wall Street Journal that Rep. John Murtha (D., Pa.) has "outlined options that would restrict any troop surge if it meant depleting readiness at home or extending the tours of troops now in the war zone. . . .

"'They will say we're micromanaging the Defense Department. Well they need to be micromanaged,' he said. 'What we decide is the direction of the country on this war.'"

Dick Polman blogs for the Philadelphia Inquirer about the Democrats and concludes that "there are indications that they might be growing a spine. Depending on how you define it."

Opinion Watch

Liberal blogger Josh Marshall looks at the past four years and asks whether anyone "can point to even a single Bush administration decision in Iraq, either strategic or tactical, that didn't turn out to be either a bad idea or a complete disaster? Anything? One good call?

"When the president goes before the people on Wednesday, he is basically saying, trust me.

"It's never really possible to know what the future will bring, especially for most of us who may have gut level instincts about military strategy but little detailed operational knowledge. But given the track record and the fact that few people outside the White House seem to think this is a good idea, what possible basis is there to put any trust in Bush's latest gambit?"

Nicholas Kristoff writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "President Bush's plan seems to represent a warmed-over variant of approaches that have already been tried and mostly failed, that are opposed by some top American military commanders and ordinary Iraqis alike, and whose most likely outcome will be many more Americans in body bags or wheelchairs."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "There have been too many times that President Bush has promised a new strategy on Iraq, only to repeat the same old set of failed approaches and unachievable objectives. Americans need to hear Mr. Bush offer something truly new -- not more glossy statements about ultimate victory, condescending platitudes about what hard work war is, or aimless vows to remain 'until the job is done.'"

Sally Quinn writes in a Washington Post op-ed: "I hope that when President Bush discusses sending more troops to Iraq, knowing that we will have to pull out sooner rather than later, that the conversation comes around to the human suffering. Does anyone at the table ask about the personal anguish, the long-term effects, emotional, psychological and financial, on the families of those killed, wounded or permanently disabled?"

Liberal blogger Arianna Huffington proposes "a diagnostic checklist" to evaluate the level of Bush's delusion.

"Does he exhibit signs of the classic layman's definition of insanity: repeatedly doing the same thing but expecting a different result?...

"Does the patient -- I mean, the president -- demonstrate magical thinking, signs of a belief that merely wishing for something can make it so?"


Carl Cannon, a White House correspondent for National Journal, writes in this month's Atlantic (subscription required) about presidents and lying.

"For the past year and a half, a majority of Americans have expressed doubts that the president's reasons for ordering the military to invade Iraq were those he articulated publicly. . . .

"Bush's place in history, however, will depend not on whether he lied to the American people--every president, arguably, has succumbed to that temptation--but how he lied, what consequences his lying unleashed, and how he ultimately responded to them. Put bluntly, posterity will judge the current president not so much by whether he told the truth but by whether he recognized what the truth actually was."

Cannon suggests the following premises:

"a) That Bush considers himself a truth teller.

"b) That although statements made by Bush as president have proven to be untrue, Bush generally believed they were true when he made them.

"c) That even when Bush's words have been at odds with the facts, you could hook him up to a polygraph machine; he'd still tell you he was telling the truth--and he'd pass."

He concludes that Bush "seems unwilling to recognize that the reality of the situation in Iraq does not conform to his vision of it. The most dangerous lies a president can tell, it would seem, are the lies he tells himself."

So does that make Bush a liar? Cannon, like his fellow mainstream White House correspondents, just can't bring himself to say. In an author interview on the Atlantic Web site, Cannon explains: "I came to no firm conclusion about where Bush fits into the tradition of presidential lying, so I wrote what I knew--trusting the readers would sort it out for themselves so long as I gave them enough facts and context to do that."

The Fielding Hire

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush has selected Fred F. Fielding to be his White House counsel, recruiting a seasoned Washington veteran to represent the president with Democratic congressional investigators and reprise the job he held under Ronald Reagan, sources close to the process said yesterday. . . .

"Fielding, 67, brings the experience and political heft that White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten has been seeking to counter any aggressive moves to probe the most controversial decisions of the Bush presidency."

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "A Republican close to the White House said Mr. Fielding had maintained close ties to Mr. Cheney, whom he has known for decades, and had occasionally been an informal adviser to him."

Signing Statements

Bush's latest signing statement continues to elicit outrage among the nation's editorial boards.

The Miami Herald: "The scope of the president's use of signing statements is breathtaking and scary. With a sweep of his pen, the president can intrude into citizens' private affairs, hide financial bungling by the government, negate months of hard work by Congress and commit or cover up a multitude of sins and wrongdoing. Congress has a solemn duty to, at minimum, conduct open hearings on the use of signing statements and demand a full accounting from the president."

The Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal: "Despite his party's defeat in November, President Bush persists in his disregard for the constitutional right to privacy that every American enjoys. . . .

"Law-abiding Americans need protection from the use of the government's immense investigative powers. That protection comes in the form of a judge and a search warrant. Bush has no right to read our mail without a warrant, no matter what he says in a signing statement."

The Virginian-Pilot: "Among many other dubious assertions, the president has said he's not subject to whistle-blower laws, affirmative action requirements, provisions of the Patriot Act, regulations about diverting money to secret operations, bars to the use of torture.

"That may sound imperious -- or even imperial -- in a system that depends on checks and balances to prevent abuses. But it is of a piece with the notion of a 'unitary executive,' a fashionable neoconservative theory that the presidency has been emasculated by an overreaching Congress and judiciary and must be restored to its proper glory."

The Charlottesville (Va.) Daily Progress: "It's wrong to open private mail without a search warrant.

"It's wrong to permit such a wrong via an undemocratic maneuver."

The Kennebec (Maine) Journal: "We believe that our security can be ensured without abrogating the protections afforded to us by the Constitution.

"Evidently, that's not the Bush Administration's view of things."

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an "open letter" to Bush (get it?): "Sir, we're running out of ways to converse without someone listening in or looking over our shoulders. With that concern in mind, we hope you will follow the letter of the law, not bend the law to follow letters."

A 'Hunting' He Did Go

Richard Gazarik and Salena Zito write in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: "With a gray sky as a backdrop, Vice President Dick Cheney arrived in Ligonier Township on Monday to spend the day hunting at the Rolling Rock Club. . . .

"The excursion was sponsored by Dan Cook, an investment banker who runs the Dallas office of Goldman Sachs. He had invited Cheney on a hunting trip in 2003 at Rolling Rock."

The hunting party featured VIPs including former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum; Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association; and L. Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center.

"Secrecy was the watchword."

That means no word on what -- or even who -- Cheney shot yesterday. But judging from his previous experiences at that same exclusive hunting club, it was a massacre. Of the avian variety.

As Rebekah Scott reported for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in December of 2003, the last time Cheney was there, he "shot more than 70 ringneck pheasants and an unknown number of mallard ducks."

How did he do that? Well, it wasn't exactly fair.

"Scott Wakefield, a dog handler at the club, said about 500 farm-raised pheasants were released from nets for the morning hunt. The 10-man hunting party that included Cheney shot 417 pheasants. The vice president was set to hunt ducks in the afternoon."

Indeed, as Jeannette Walls and Ashley Pearson later reported for MSNBC: "The shooting spree prompted an outraged letter from the Humane Society. 'This wasn't a hunting ground. It was an open-air abattoir, and the vice president should be ashamed to have patronized this operation and then slaughtered so many animals,' Wayne Pacelle, a senior vice president of The Humane Society of the United States, wrote in a letter of protest."

Elisabeth Bumiller wrote in the New York Times that "hunters generally do not embrace any form of the practice as a substitute for the real thing."

Nate Corddry did a side-splitting expose on canned hunts for the Daily Show last March. "It's like regular hunting, but with a menu," he said.


Brett Lieberman blogs for the Patriot-News of Harrisburg, Pa., this morning: "Westmoreland County hospitals reported no hunters were injured Monday after Vice President Dick Cheney spent a day hunting at the private Rolling Rock Club. But give it some time. It took almost 14 hours for word to get out last February when Cheney shot hunting companion Harry Whittington in the face during an outing in Texas."

The President and the Disgraced Lobbyist

The Associated Press reports: "A liberal watchdog group published on its Web site Monday a picture of President Bush and imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the kind of photo the White House has refused to release."

And here it is.

Late Night Humor

Via the Charlotte Observer:

Conan O'Brien: "President Bush is claiming that a new postal law gives him the authority to read anyone's letters without a warrant. If you're upset about the law, you can let Bush know by writing to your sister."

Jay Leno: "President Bush is expected to announce that he is now sending more troops to Iraq -- despite the fact that his generals, his military analysts, members of Congress and most of the American people are against the idea. The reason he is doing it? To give Iraq a government that responds to the will of the people."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles and John Sherffius on Bush's latest signing statement; Tony Auth, Pat Oliphant, and Mike Luckovich on the surge.

© 2007 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive