Nation Wants a New Direction

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, January 15, 2008; 12:42 PM

Americans overwhelmingly want the next president to set the nation in a new direction.

Gary Langer writes for ABC News about the latest Washington Post-ABC News Poll: "Seventy-nine percent of Americans say the next president should set the nation on a new course rather than following the direction in which Bush has been leading. (And two-thirds feel that way strongly.)

"For the first time this is even more than said so about Bush's father, 75 percent, the summer before he was voted out of office in 1992. And it's vastly more than the most who ever wanted a new direction after Reagan (58 percent) or Bill Clinton (48 percent).

"It holds in both parties, albeit to different degrees. Ninety-four percent of leaned Democrats, and 57 percent of leaned Republicans, say they want the next president to take a different direction than Bush's. Claims to the mantle of 'change' are likely to continue apace for the next 10 months."

Bush's job approval rating, driven down by growing economic worries along with continued opposition to the war, is now at 32 percent -- an all-time low in the Post/ABC poll.

Compare that to the 17 percent of Americans who said they agreed with the statement: "We need to keep the country moving in the direction Bush has been taking us."

And, if you do the math, that leads to the conclusion that even among Bush's remaining supporters, almost half think it's time to try something different.

The latest USA Today/Gallup Poll reports almost identical results.

Susan Page and William Risser write in USA Today: "By an overwhelming 4-1 ratio, Americans in a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll say they want a president who will change direction from President Bush -- including not only 97% of Democrats but also a 54% majority of Republicans. . . .

"Ending the war and bringing troops home was the response most often given to an open-ended question in the poll about what sort of change participants want. One in four call a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq the type of change that they would most like to see carried out by the next president."

Americans are also overwhelmingly concerned about the political bankruptcy of the Bush years.

Eighty percent agree that the "failure of the government to solve the major challenges facing the country in the last few years" is either a crisis or a major problem. An identical proportion agree that "Democratic and Republican leaders making decisions based on what is best for their party even if it is not in the best interests of the country" is a crisis or a major problem. Eighty-three percent say that "Powerful special interests having too much control over what the government does" is a crisis or a major problem.

Jon Cohen and Jennifer Agiesta write in The Washington Post that "optimism about the nation's direction has dipped to its lowest point in more than a decade, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

"Nearly eight in 10 now think the country is 'pretty seriously' off track."

Seeing a trend? As we approach the final year of Bush's term in office, 80 percent of Americans -- four out of five -- are eager to put him and his presidency behind them.

So is it any surprise that the presidential candidates in both parties are talking so much about change?

Not to Bush, apparently. But he has an explanation. And in his view, it's nothing personal.

From a short interview with NBC's David Gregory last week:

Gregory: "Do you see this message of change as anything other than a rejection of your presidency?"

Bush: "No, listen, if you're running for office, you can't run for office and not say, 'I am an agent of change.' That's just American politics. And if I were running for office at this point, I'd be saying, 'Vote for me. I'm going to be an agent of change.'"

Opinion Watch

E. J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post opinion column today: "The turmoil in the Republican presidential contest, which seems to produce a new front-runner every month, stems from President Bush's unpopularity and the fact that even members of his own party want to turn the page on the past seven years. . . .

"[W]ith the president's standing in the polls remaining low and the public's intense desire for change spilling across party boundaries, Bush may find himself on the sidelines, watching a campaign built around a bipartisan repudiation of his legacy."

Bush and the NIE

When the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran was released late last year, reporting that the nation's intelligence agencies had concluded that Iran shelved its nuclear weapons program four years ago, Bush responded with some serious verbal jujitsu, trying to make the case that the report actually vindicated his white-hot hostility toward that regime.

I led yesterday's column with Michael Hirsh's story in Newsweek, reporting that Bush had "all but disowned the document" in private conversations with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last week.

That Bush would privately dismiss information that didn't suit him is not exactly a surprise. The Bush Bubble has been a consistent element of his presidency, a reflection of his distaste for anything that might challenge his worldview.

But it looks like Bush may be on the verge of dissing the NIE publicly.

In a roundtable interview with pool reporters today, Bush immediately went off the record when he started talking about what he had told Saudi King Abdullah about the NIE. Back on the record, he had this to say: "I assured him that our intelligence services came to an independent judgment."

Later, a reporter followed up:

Q: "On the NIE, did you -- were you, in effect, distancing yourself from the conclusions of the NIE, and these guys --"

Bush: "No, I was making it clear it was an independent judgment. . . . I defended our intelligence services, but made it clear that they're an independent agency; that they come to conclusions separate from what I may or may not want."

But there's reason to suspect that Bush, in an interview with Fox News on Monday, said something dismissive about the NIE. (The interview isn't set to air until tomorrow night.)

From yesterday's briefing with White House Press Secretary Dan Perino:

Q: "My question is based to some extent on the exchanges that the President had with my Fox News colleague, Greta Van Susteren. In your own discussions with the President about the NIE and its central finding that the weaponization aspect of the Iran nuclear program has been suspended, do you find that the President fully accepts this conclusion? Or is there any -- has the President expressed to you, are you aware of any feeling on the President's part that, however sincere the analysts might have been, they might have gotten it wrong? Has he admitted the possibility at all in his mind that the analysts may be wrong about this?"

Perino's non-responsive answer: "I've not heard the President express anything but support for the intelligence community. But I think what he has said, and he has repeated both privately and publicly, is that he does not believe that the NIE that was produced -- was it two months ago -- should provide anyone any comfort that Iran is not a threat."

Four hundred more words later, the reporter followed up:

Q: "But my question was not about perception or misperceptions of the report's findings, or the implications, or whether or not Iran remains a threat. My question to you is whether or not the President admits at all in his own mind of the possibility that the central finding was actually wrong?"

Perino: "Again, I said he has complete confidence in the intelligence community."

Fred Kaplan writes for Slate: "For the president of the United States to wave away the whole document . . . is gratuitous and self-destructive.

"Then again, such behavior is of a piece with the pattern of relations between President Bush and his intelligence agencies. In September 2004, when he was asked about a pessimistic CIA report on the course of the occupation in Iraq, Bush replied that the agency was 'just guessing.'"

Kaplan sees all sorts of irony in the present situation. "In decades past, the CIA has often lost credibility as a result of its own failures and scandals. Now President Bush is splashing doubt not just on the CIA, but on all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, simply because their judgments are out of synch with his policies."

Then there's the fact that "this NIE is the product of reforms that President Bush himself signed into law -- the creation of a director of national intelligence and various other procedural changes -- designed to keep intelligence analysis free of political interference."

Kaplan writes that Bush's reaction "can't help but demoralize the intelligence community." And it also "reinforces the widespread view that the president views intelligence strictly as a political tool: When it backs up his policies, it's as good as gold; when it doesn't, it's 'just guessing.' This result is that all intelligence is degraded and devalued, at home and abroad."

Bush and the Saudis

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush on Monday launched a rare round of intensive personal diplomacy with Saudi King Abdullah aimed at winning support for a variety of American objectives such as rebuilding Iraq, pressuring Iran, fighting al-Qaeda and backing the U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

"Some diplomats and experts with close ties to the administration say meeting with Abdullah has been the main purpose of the president's trip to the region. . . .

"Saudi officials have sounded a skeptical note recently about Bush's drive for more diplomatic and financial pressure on Iran, which the president has emphasized almost daily on his swing through the Middle East. . . .

"One reason for the greater Saudi independence, according to former U.S. diplomats and other experts who deal closely with the kingdom, is that the Saudis have begun to doubt American competence and are looking to forge their own relations with rising powers such as China and regional rivals including Iran.' . . .

"While publicly polite, the Saudi king and other leading figures also see the incumbent U.S. president as a disappointment -- certainly compared with his father, George H.W. Bush, a close friend and former oilman who was lionized here for his handling of the Persian Gulf War. By contrast, former officials and others close to the royal family say, Saudi royals believe Bush has handled issues such as Iran, Iraq and Middle East peace ineptly."

Terence Hunt and Anne Gearan write for the Associated Press: "President Bush urged OPEC nations on Tuesday to put more oil on the world market and warned that soaring prices could cause an economic slowdown in the United States.

"'High energy prices can damage consuming economies,' the president told a small group of reporters traveling with him in the Mideast.

"'It's affected our families. Paying more for gasoline hurts some of the American families, and I'll make that clear to him,' said Bush, heading into more talks with Saudi King Abdullah. Shortly after Bush spoke, the Saudi oil minister said the kingdom, responsible for almost one-third of the cartel's total output, would raise oil production when the market justified it."

Not Standing Down

Bush showed no sign of backing off his angry response to an encounter last week between three enormous U.S. warships and five tiny Iranian motorboats, despite the fact that the U.S. has had to revise its version of events.

In the roundtable interview, Bush had this to say: "My only point is, they shouldn't be doing it. It was provocative in the first place, and our captain showed restraint. These are judgment calls and there are clear rules of engagement. Our people operate under very strict rules in the Straits, and so should the Iranians. And they better be careful of -- and not be provocative and, you know, get out there and cause an incident, because there's going to be serious consequences. And what I said in my statement was, if they hit one of our ships there are going to be serious consequences, and I meant it."

Going On and Off the Record

From the transcript of that roundtable:

Perino: "We'll start on the record, just some general comments and answer a couple of questions. And then if you feel like you want to go off the record, then we'll ask them to turn their tape recorders off."

Bush: "Okay, I'd like to go off the record. (Laughter.)"

Ha ha.

In addition to going off the record to talk about the NIE, the transcript shows another break when Bush was asked whether Israel might take military action against Iran.

Hypocrisy Watch

Michael Hirsh writes for Newsweek: "A day after George W. Bush gave his big democracy speech and declared the opening of 'a great new era . . . founded on the equality of all people' -- a line he delivered at the astonishingly opulent Emirates Palace hotel, where most of the $2,450-a-night suites are reserved for visiting royals -- the president flew to Saudi Arabia on Monday. There he planned to spend a day with King Abdullah at his ranch, where the monarch keeps 150 Arabian stallions for his pleasure, and thousands of goats and sheep 'bred to feed the guests at the King's royal banquets'. . . . Bush was also expected to take time out to meet with a group of 'Saudi entrepreneurs.'

"What could not be found on Bush's schedule was one Saudi dissident or political activist, much less a democrat. . . .

"I understand that Bush must engage in some realpolitik at the moment. This is no time to undermine the Arab regimes. It's important to rally them against Iran's nuclear program and to enlist them in supporting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In addition, the worrisome rise of oil prices to around $100 a barrel has given the big producers even more leverage.

"But if that's so, then don't plan a major democracy speech when you know you're not going to act on it, with not even a symbolic move of any kind to accompany it. There's a word for this kind of thing. It's called hypocrisy."

On the Lighter Side

Wall Street Journal reporter John D. McKinnon wrote in a pool report from Bush's arrival in Saudi Arabia: "The King proceeded to award POTUS a piece of bling that could well exceed that of Bahrain a couple of days earlier. From the photos it appears to be a medallion of gold with white and green stone, suspended from a gold palm tree emblem with crossed swords. The chain seems to be made in an ornate woven pattern, with rubies and emeralds intermingled. Serious jack appears to be involved."

Los Angeles Times reporter Jim Gerstenzang wrote in a pool report about Bush's visit to Al Marabba Palace: "With drums beating and performers chanting, he held a sword over his right shoulder, and swayed arm-in-arm to the music with his host, identified as Prince Salman, the governor of Riyadh. He seemed to get into the dance, leaning further to the right and then left and slightly dipping his shoulders as he shifted his balance. He displayed a sheepish grin."

Ed Henry of CNN reports: "Who knew that President Bush loves 'bling-bling,' Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice finds strawberry juice just dandy, and some White House journalists like to munch on goat brains?"

On Faith

Steven Lee Myers writes in the New York Times that it is "striking" how much Bush's "faith is coloring his approach to the biggest foreign policy challenges: the war in Iraq, the push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, and his broader appeal for democracy as a counterweight to combating extremism in the Islamic world from Iran to Lebanon.

"As he traveled from Israel to the Persian Gulf and, on Monday, to Saudi Arabia, keeper of Islam's holiest sites, Mr. Bush repeatedly cited monotheistic faith, contending that it served as the foundation for freedom, justice and representative government.

"'A great new era is unfolding before us,' Mr. Bush said in a speech on Sunday in an opulent hotel in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. 'This new era is founded on the equality of all people before God. This new era is being built with the understanding that power is a trust that must be exercised with the consent of the governed -- and deliver equal justice under the law.'"

But Myers does note: "Mr. Bush's wars in the Islamic world, his use of the word 'crusade' to describe an effort to curb terrorism, and his strong support for Israel have made him a reviled figure in the Islamic world, undercutting such ecumenical appeals."

Maureen Dowd Watch

Michael Abramowitz blogs for The Washington Post about how New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, along for the president's trip, fell sick and ended up seeing Bush's doctor.

Benchmark Watch

The New York Times editorial board writes: "The Iraqi Parliament has finally done something that the Bush administration, and many others, considered essential to political progress in Iraq: it passed a law intended to open government jobs to former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. What should have been heralded as an accomplishment, however, may only serve to further reinforce the bumbling nature of President Bush's ill-conceived adventure in Iraq.

"No one, it seems, has a clear sense of what the law will do. Some suggest it could actually exclude more former Baathists than it lets in -- a sure-fire way to fuel political tensions rather than calm them. . . .

"Iraqis are going to have to do a lot better to make their country work. Withdrawing American troops may finally persuade them to do that."

Howard LaFranchi writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "The Bush administration is counting on Saturday's passage of a key piece of legislation in Iraq, easing measures against former Baathists, to act as a break in a logjam that has held up national reconciliation."

But, he writes: "Even as they note progress in Iraq as a result of the surge, some experts say long-term prospects for national reconciliation remain cloudy. One reason is that the surge succeeded in part by cooperating with and arming Sunni groups formerly opposed to the US, resulting in Sunni militias that may now feel less inclined to compromise with the dominant Shiite forces, they say.

"'We have scattered the forces of Al Qaeda in Iraq, no question,' says Wayne White, who headed the State Department's Iraq analysis until 2005 and is now at the Middle East Institute in Washington. 'But we've made civil war far more likely down the road by making Sunni Arabs far more able to fight it.'"

Rice Slips Off to Iraq

Anne Gearan writes for the Associated Press: "While the president stuck to his schedule, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice slipped away from the Saudi capital for an unannounced visit to Baghdad for talks with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. One of his aides said Rice encouraged the prime minister to speed progress of legislation on provincial elections, constitutional amendments and a law to share oil and gas resources among the different sects.

"Rice was en route to the Iraqi capital when the White House informed reporters traveling with the president. There was speculation before Bush left Washington last week on his eight-day Mideast trip that he would be the one to stop in Iraq."

Timetable Watch

Thom Shanker writes in the New York Times: "The Iraqi defense minister said Monday that his nation would not be able to take full responsibility for its internal security until 2012, nor be able on its own to defend Iraq's borders from external threat until at least 2018. . . .

"President Bush has never given a date for a military withdrawal from Iraq but has repeatedly said that American forces would stand down as Iraqi forces stand up. Given [minister Abdul] Qadir's assessment of Iraq's military capabilities on Monday, such a withdrawal appeared to be quite distant, and further away than any American officials have previously stated in public."

Stimulus Watch

Laura Litvan writes for Bloomberg: "President George W. Bush and Congress return to Washington this week to face the prospect of recession and rising home-mortgage foreclosures that may push them toward compromise. . . .

"Congress ended 2007 mired in gridlock over issues such as the Iraq war and immigration, and the partisan wrangling may continue, if not worsen, this year as both parties seek to score political points before the November elections. The threat of a recession, however, may force the two sides to at least look for common ground on the economy, said Alec Phillips, a Washington analyst with Goldman Sachs Group Inc."

David Herszenhorn writes in the New York Times that even as Speaker Nancy Pelosi "renewed a call by Democratic leaders for cooperation with President Bush and Republicans in Congress, lawmakers in both parties said that efforts to develop a short-term stimulus plan could easily fall prey to partisan disputes like whether to extend Mr. Bush's tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, which expire after 2010.

"The Democrats are insisting that Republicans not inject their desire to extend the tax cuts into negotiations of a short-term rescue package intended to dampen the impact of a recession. But in interviews, several Republican lawmakers said they could not imagine a debate not involving long-term tax policy."

Budget expert Stan Collender writes in his inaugural column at subscription-only Roll Call: "In the current political environment, the White House and Congress would have trouble agreeing on legislation reaffirming that today is Tuesday, especially if tax and spending changes were included in the bill."

Book Watch

Bloomberg's Charles Trueheart reviews Jacob Weisberg's new book "The Bush Tragedy" -- "an unexpectedly compelling piece of armchair psychoanalysis."

A quote from the book: "The term 'competition' doesn't begin to do justice to the Oedipal complexities of this particular relationship. . . . George W. Bush has been driven since childhood by a need to differentiate himself from his father, to challenge, surpass and overcome him. Accompanying those motives have been their precise opposites, expressed through a lifelong effort to follow, copy and honor his father."

Trueheart praises Weisberg in particular for "psychoanalyzing the co-dependent relationships that developed between Bush and the two men most responsible for the tragedy that ensued: his political Svengali and egger-on, Karl Rove, and his vice president and substitute father, Dick Cheney."

Cheney, for instance, "appreciated that 'Bush needed to make himself his father's antithesis,' Weisberg writes. He 'grasped that Bush's overconfidence concealed an abiding intellectual insecurity.' On the blank slate of his boss's mind, Cheney drew a master plan to restore the authority of the chief executive -- a plan that blew up in their faces."

Joe Conason reviews the Weisberg book for the Los Angeles Times: "Weisberg's investigation of the fraught relationships among the men of the Bush and Walker families, whose own contrasting characters set the stage for the devolution of the dynasty. The president's forbidding but upright grandfather, Prescott Bush, who served as a liberal Republican senator from Connecticut, evidently could not abide the Walkers, a flashy, arrogant and dissolute clan from the Midwest who pursued wealth and pleasure without the slightest interest in public service. It is the Walker character -- aggressive, impatient, competitive, charismatic and sometimes mean, according to Weisberg -- that found expression in George W."

Writes Conason: "So great are the consequences of the rise of George W. Bush that we are likely to find ourselves sifting through the story again and again, with an almost neurotic compulsion, trying to find exactly where we went wrong."

Mulling the Post-Bush Era

James Reston Jr. writes in a USA Today op-ed: "The desperate imperative of the post-Iraq era is to repair the terrible damage that this war has done to the basic fabric of the nation and to its standing in the world. . . .

"A true reconstruction of America after the disaster of the past seven years must involve a process of historical purification. Our political process must be cleansed of the abuses, missteps, distortions and outright lies that have been committed in our name, so that the mistakes of Iraq are never repeated again."

Among Reston's suggestions: A truth and reconciliation commission, the publishing of all internal government papers on Iraq, and a series of tough, public interviews with Bush. "A few years from now, an extensive set of interviews with the ex-president should take place along the lines of David Frost's famous interviews with Richard Nixon in 1977. Let Bush profess to be another Harry S. Truman and argue that history will vindicate him. To watch him flounder with that weak argument in the face of serious scrutiny would be part of our collective catharsis."

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Cartoon Watch

Ann Telnaes on the camel Bush rode in on; Jim Morin on Bush's 2008 campaign slogan; Pancho on the provocation in the Gulf.

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