For months, the White House has tried to argue that President George W. Bush "gets it" about the war in Iraq, that he understands why a growing number of Americans don't share his optimistic assessments about the war.
The president started building his new image late last year, when he partly conceded making mistakes in the handling of the war. More recently, amid record low poll numbers , Bush has yet to do anything as notable. In fact the most striking thing about his latest PR offensive is not his message. It's his staging.
After months of appearing mostly before military audiences or groups perceived as friendly to the president, Bush has stepped out of the box, taking questions from unscreened audiences. This week he has done that every day—first in Cleveland, then at a White House news conference, and finally in Wheeling, W.Va., on Wednesday.
His goal is to show that he has left his bubble when it comes to the war. He understands how worried Americans are. And he knows it's going to be a tough, long fight against the enemy. "I understand war creates concerns," Bush told reporters Tuesday. "Nobody likes war. It creates a sense of uncertainty in the country." But he added: "I'm going to say it again, if I didn't believe we could succeed, I wouldn't be there. I wouldn't put those kids there. I meet with too many families who've lost a loved one not to be able to look them in the eye and say, we're doing the right thing. And we are doing the right thing."
The only problem for Bush and his nervous party is that his message isn't new. Congressional Republicans have repeatedly told White House officials they are losing the message on the war. Some GOP officials privately question whether Bush's media push is helping or hurting. Just as troops are forced to adapt to changing war tactics, Republicans say the White House needs to adjust its communications strategy to adapt to public sentiment. Yet one senior GOP leadership aide tells NEWSWEEK that administration officials have rejected the advice. "Every time the White House puts out a story that the president will be talking about the war and the new strategy behind it, it's the same speech," says the GOP aide, who declined to be named while criticizing the White House. "This is like their eighth time they've rolled out this process, and it's had no impact beyond lower poll numbers."
On Tuesday, Bush dismissed worries in the GOP ranks as merely election-year jitters. He told reporters that he's been "listening" to advice from members of Congress, but gave no indication that he's actually planning to take it, especially on the growing calls from Republicans to bring in new blood and replace his top advisers. Yet he did hint at one concession—a call to bring in a senior staffer to aid with congressional relations. "I'm not going to announce it right now," Bush said.
That coyness might not be all it seems. Bush's aides see it as highly unlikely that the president would layer over them with a senior adviser drawn from the Washington establishment. A more likely scenario, they say, is that someone might leave the White House a year earlier than originally planned, providing an opening for a new face. In any case, the president could hardly dismiss the idea of a fresh adviser while trying to show that he's open to new ideas.
A quick look at the polls explains the president's predicament. According to the latest survey for the Pew Research Center, 56 percent say Bush is "out of touch" with what is happening in the government. That is worse than Ronald Reagan's figures after the Iran-contra scandal broke, when 47 percent said he was out of touch. Bush's aides are fully aware of the dangers of seeming unconnected with reality. That was perhaps the fatal flaw for the president's father as he struggled for his own re-election in 1992. The 41st president was famously caricatured as uncaring or simply ignorant about the nation's economic woes. The 43rd president made sure he expressed his concerns about the loss of manufacturing jobs as he toured the rust belt during his own re-election campaign in 2004.
That's the same tactic he's now employing in the war. Empathy is an important test of any leader, and President Bush can readily acknowledge the public mood without admitting any new mistakes. "Now the fundamental question is: Can we win in Iraq?" he said in West Virginia on Wednesday. "First of all, you got to understand that I fully understand there is deep concern among the American people about whether or not we can win. And I can understand why people are concerned. And they're concerned because the enemy has got the capacity to affect our thinking."
Those concerns have also eroded what was once Bush's great advantage. Poll after poll in 2004 gave him a big lead over John Kerry on questions of character, especially his image as a strong leader. Now the Pew poll shows that 44 percent think of Bush as a strong leader—an 11-point decline since last summer. When it comes to the war, a big majority is unconvinced by his strategy: 70 percent believe Bush lacks a clear plan for ending the war successfully, including 40 percent of Republicans.
For all his attempts to show how in touch he is with worries about Iraq, Bush's most notable moment of candor during this week's news conference came when he was asked about the political capital he bragged so much about at the beginning of his second term. For months, Bush has insisted that he still has plenty of capital to burn. But in what almost appeared as an off-the-cuff remark, he admitted that it's largely gone toward Iraq. "I'd say I'm spending that capital on the war," he said bluntly.
It was an extraordinary admission for a president who had hoped to turn the focus of his presidency toward domestic policies during his second term. It was also the biggest sign to date that Bush does indeed understand the war's corrosive effect on public opinion—and his political power.