Just hours before President Bush walked into the Holiday Inn hotel near Capitol Hill on Wednesday, the Iraqi Army arrested 18 policemen in Tal Afar, northwest of Baghdad. The police officers, who are Shiite, were suspected of executing a murderous rampage overnight, killing dozens of Sunni men in their homes. Most were killed with a shot to the back of the head—bloody revenge for two truck bombs that left more than 60 dead the previous day.
So how did President Bush talk about the situation in Iraq? He painted an encouraging picture of life in Baghdad, where U.S. forces are working with Iraqis at checkpoints across the city. He spoke of discovering weapons caches, of destroying bomb factories, and of Iraqi bloggers writing about a return to normal life. "We've launched successful operations against Shia extremists," he said. "We've captured hundreds of fighters that are spreading sectarian violence. In other words, we're after killers."
Maybe it was the nature of the audience that made the speech sound like it came from a parallel universe. Bush was addressing the National Cattlemen's Beef Association—a strange crowd for an Iraq speech. But his tone was far more upbeat than at any time for several months. "These are hopeful signs," he said of the security sweep in Baghdad, "and that's positive."
Bush can be forgiven for clinging to the thinnest of reeds lately. There isn't a whole lot of good news to be found at the White House. Bush delivered his speech in the wake of a nonbinding vote in the Senate to bring American troops home by the fall of 2008—a vote made possible in part by the defection of Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel to the Democratic camp.
But the White House woes are hardly confined to Iraq. The controversy over the firing of a batch of U.S. attorneys continues to escalate, as key staffers head to Capitol Hill to testify—or not. A week after telling the country that "the attorney general and his key staff will testify before the relevant congressional committees" to explain the dismissals, Monica Goodling, senior counselor to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, invoked the Fifth Amendment in announcing that she declined to give Congress her testimony. Pressure on Gonzales continued to mount, even in Republican ranks.
Overseas, tensions mounted over the Iranian capture of 15 British sailors, provoking a round of saber-rattling and raising at least the possibility that diplomatic options might not turn down the heat. With several U.S. warships steaming into the Persian Gulf, the president's team was keeping a wary eye on the crisis.
And closer to home, White House staffers were rocked by the news that spokesman Tony Snow's cancer—which cost him his colon a few years ago—had recurred, and spread to his liver. Throughout this dreadful news cycle, Snow has been a bright spot for the White House, lifting spirits with his combative press briefings and easygoing manner.
So what's the White House strategy for regaining the offensive politically? Hybrid cars and switchgrass—subjects to which the president has returned, over and over again, despite little indication that his domestic energy agenda was gaining any traction with Congress or the country.
Last week, Bush traveled to the Midwest, where he toured Ford and GM auto plants that build hybrid cars. There, he touted his "20 in 10" plan—which would reduce gasoline consumption by 20 percent over the next 10 years. Yet his trip got little attention, largely because of problems back in Washington. Bush headed back to the White House early, where he voiced his support for Gonzales and promised "extraordinary" cooperation with Congress.
This Monday, Bush met with CEOs of the Big Three Detroit automakers at the White House. Afterward, he and the auto execs moved to the South Lawn to check out several shiny brand-new hybrid cars. On Tuesday, Bush saw even more cars—this time, commercial hybrid vehicles parked at a local U.S. Postal Service facility. There, Bush met with executives from the Postal Service, FedEx, UPS and DaimlerChrysler to talk about alternative fuels and commercial truck fleets. "The goal I laid out of reducing gasoline by 20 percent over 10 years is a realistic goal," Bush said. "In other words, this isn't a pipe dream, this is something that our nation can accomplish. It's going to take more research dollars, it's going to take working with the private sector, and it's going to take innovative leadership."
It's also going to take a substantial shift in the political landscape. While many Democrats like Bush's proposals on alternative-energy research and reducing gasoline consumption, the issue hasn't generated the bipartisan cooperation that White House officials had hoped for as Bush enters the final 21 months of his presidency. A few bills have been introduced on Capitol Hill that would carry out some of Bush's proposals—including increased funding for alternative-energy research—but the legislation has taken a backseat to other pressing debates, like the war in Iraq.
Indeed, with gas prices down compared to last year, polls show the public pressure just isn't what it was back then. A recent Gallup poll still finds that Bush gets low marks for his handling of energy policy—63 percent of those questioned say he's done a "poor job." The same survey found that Iraq outranks nearly every other issue facing the country, including energy, health care and the economy.
Bush and his aides had hoped to seize on areas of common ground with Democrats—like alternative energy and immigration reform—in hopes of leaving more of a lasting domestic legacy. But buffeted by bad news and running low on allies, even within GOP ranks—Bush's goals seem more distant each day.