It may be temporary, and it may have little impact on the ground. But there's an I-told-you-so attitude in the West Wing—a rare feel-good moment in a second term beset by a succession of crises.
The cause for the small uptick in mood? Watching the Democrats cave on legislation demanding a timetable for withdrawal in return for increased funding for the war in Iraq. For months, President Bush has told aides that congressional Democrats would overreach on the war, with legislation that reached beyond the public's discontent with policy. The president also predicted that Democratic candidates would stumble as they competed for the antiwar vote. Bush's calculation was that, at the end of the debate, Democrats would have neither the stomach nor the votes to cut off funds to the troops.
That's why the normally soft-spoken chief of staff, Josh Bolten, took a hard line in his negotiations on Capitol Hill last week. Bolten said no to the Democrats' offer of an olive branch—the notion of a timeline for withdrawal that the president could waive.
Instead, the Democrats have had to agree to legislation on Bush's terms—with minimal compromise on the part of the president (the funding bill's provisions to assess the Iraqi government's performance are hardly controversial within the West Wing). Even better for the beleaguered White House, the Democratic leadership of Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi will now have to push legislation that they personally oppose. "I don't know the last time this happened, but the House Speaker will bring a conference report to the floor which the majority of her own party don't support," said one senior Bush aide, who declined to be named while discussing White House strategy with Congress.
From the White House perspective, the first sign of progress came in the muted reaction to the president's veto of the first war-spending bill. "The public posturing died down since the veto," the senior Bush aide said, with the exception of prominent war critics like Wisconsin's Dave Obey. That hasn't fazed Bush's staff. "I mean, Obey is Obey," the senior aide shrugged.
There are signs that the focus on Iraq hasn't helped Democratic leaders. A poll last month for the Pew Research Center showed opposition to congressional Democrats is growing. Five months ago, the Democrats enjoyed higher approval ratings than disapproval ratings—39 percent to 34 percent (for a net positive of 5 points). Today, the approval number has slipped a little to 37 percent, while the disapproval number has risen to 43 (for a net negative of 6 points).
Yet when it comes to the policy the Democrats advocated—the timetable for withdrawing troops—a clear majority of Americans support the party, and oppose the White House. By 59 percent to 33 percent, public opinion supported Congressional calls for a timeline for withdrawal by August 2008, according to the Pew poll.
In short, the country has a split personality on Iraq. While some two thirds of Americans disapprove of the president's handling of the war, the results are mixed on the question of whether the Iraq invasion was worthwhile. According to the last Pew survey, 45 percent said the United States made the right decision to go to war; just two points more, 47 percent, said it was wrong. The first time the "right-decision" number touched these levels was October 2004—just before Bush's re-election.
Are these good numbers for the White House? Hardly. But it allowed Bush's strategists to leverage their win on the war-funding bill and hand the Democrats their legislative defeat.
Still, White House officials acknowledge that in spite of their public expressions of confidence and certainty, they know that public opinion has shifted. And the question remains: can the White House maintain high levels of troops in Iraq until January 2009? A senior Bush aide described the situation in Iraq as "pay-as-you-go": more money will require showing progress on the ground. That concept of a step-by-step approach to waging war is itself an acknowledgement that the politics of Iraq have changed inside the Beltway.
Meanwhile, President Bush is revisiting his "President Resolute" persona. On Wednesday, he returned to his favorite Iraq narrative—the one that traces a straight line from Al Qaeda to 9/11 to Iraq. But he also managed to flub his applause line, as he spoke to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn. "Al Qaeda knows that our presence in Iraq is a direct threat to their existence in Iraq," he said. "Our security depends on helping the Iraqis succeed and defeating Iraq ... Al Qaeda in Iraq."
If only the war were as simple as defeating Iraq; it might have been all over by now.