Presidents don’t typically deliver two major addresses during the month of January—especially not less than two weeks apart. But the deteriorating situation in Iraq has denied Bush the luxury of laying low at the start of the year, developing the domestic policy goals that he hoped would be the legacy of his second term. Instead, the White House was forced to work on two tracks—one speechwriting team focused on next week’s State of the Union address, another on last week’s “troop surge” speech.
Both Bush aides and congressional Republicans had hoped that by dealing with Iraq in a separate speech to the nation, Bush would be able to focus on other pressing issues during his annual speech on Capitol Hill, including a renewed push for alternative energy, immigration reform and efforts to make his tax cuts permanent. But like so many of Bush’s goals in recent years, the majority of his State of the Union pledges have been overtaken by events in Iraq. The flagship address is still days away and yet it already seems to have been overshadowed by last week’s televised address on Iraq and the question of where the United States goes next if Bush’s decision to increase troops in the region doesn’t work.
Now, facing strong opposition from Democrats and wavering GOP lawmakers on the president’s latest plan, Bush aides are viewing next week’s speech as a second chance to convince the American people of the dangers of leaving Iraq. The speech will no doubt be timely: Democrats have tentatively scheduled a floor debate early next week on a symbolic resolution condemning Bush’s troop surge, with some lawmakers threatening to go further by cutting funding for the war.
In many ways, only the White House is to blame for Bush’s inability to gain traction on issues beyond Iraq. Bush had planned to devote most of this week to working on the State of the Union, but instead has been forced to spend more time shoring up support for his troop plan. He has given two televised interviews this week, one to "60 Minutes" and another to PBS anchor Jim Lehrer. In those interviews as in his speech, the message has been part “stay the course,” part contrition. During Tuesday’s interview with Lehrer, Bush admitted his past Iraq policies had resulted in “slow failure”—perhaps the grimmest assessment the president has delivered on his own mistakes in the handling of the war. Behind the scenes, he has been busy reaching out to Republicans critical of the troop deployment, such as Sens. Norm Coleman and George Voinovich.
Administration officials had hoped that Bush’s address to the nation last week would buy him time and patience from the American people on Iraq. But recent polls find a nation still skeptical about Bush’s handling of the war and the chances of victory. A USA Today/Gallup poll released Tuesday found that 59 percent of those surveyed oppose the troop surge—a number virtually unchanged since last week. Just 29 percent of those surveyed believe Bush has a “clear plan” for victory in Iraq—an uptick of 4 points since before the speech. The good news for Bush is that the public doesn’t think Democrats have the answer either: 75 percent of those polled by Gallup believe congressional Democrats “do not” have a plan for victory.
At the same time, Democrats don’t look eager to turn the page away from Iraq. While Bush still hopes to talk about subjects other than Iraq in next week’s speech—including a new strategy on global warming—Democrats have selected newly elected Sen. Jim Webb from Virginia to deliver their party’s response to the State of the Union. Webb, an outspoken critic of the war, has a son serving in Iraq and recently butted heads with Bush at a White House reception for freshman lawmakers. When Bush asked Webb about his son, the senator brusquely replied, “That’s between me and my boy, Mr. President.” In other words, it won’t be easy for the White House to paint Webb, a Vietnam veteran and former Reagan administration official, with the “cut and run” tag that the president and his allies have frequently tried to label Democrats.
Adding to Bush’s worries about his legacy: The ever-increasing number of lawmakers jumping into the 2008 presidential race. Several months ago, Bush adviser Karl Rove pressed many Republicans interested in the race, including Sam Brownback, to hold off on their presidential ambitions to allow Bush to govern without distraction for as long as possible. Last week, Brownback, a staunch ally of the president, broke with Bush and came out against a troop increase—a unique position among the other GOP hopefuls, including Sen. John McCain, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, who all support the president. With Barack Obama now heading into the race on the Democratic side, the jockeying among the 2008 hopefuls on both sides on all issues, including the war, looks to further muddy the waters in terms of what Bush will actually be able to accomplish in his final two years in office.
For their part, White House aides have already launched the PR push for next week’s speech. Without releasing many details, administration officials say Bush will focus on issues where he believes he can compromise with the Democratic-led Congress, namely energy. But it’s the one issue where compromise has thus far been elusive that looks to overshadow Bush’s efforts to be remembered for more than Iraq: what to do about the war.