The setting and the message were familiar. But the president, sitting at his desk inside the Oval Office as he delivered his eighth major address on Iraq, was experiencing something unusual. For the first time in many months, if not years, George Bush believed he had a good story to tell about Iraq.
Iraq might not be peaceful or on a track toward reconciliation. Most of the benchmarks for progress, laid out earlier this year, have gone unmet. But the situation has improved in Anbar province and Baghdad—a consequence of the surge, Bush believes—and that's good enough, in the president's eyes, to allow the troops to begin rotating home as planned.
After six years of highly partisan government—and three elections fought over Iraq—he now hopes to build some support across the aisle. There is, he argues, a third way between success and troop withdrawals.
"Americans want our country to be safe and our troops to begin coming home from Iraq," he said. "Yet those of us who believe success in Iraq is essential to our security, and those who believe we should bring our troops home, have been at odds. Now, because of the measure of success we are seeing in Iraq, we can begin seeing troops come home."
Inside the White House, "success" is measured at home as much as it is in Iraq. And lately there has been at least a little reason for cheer. Bush's overall approval ratings remain dismal, but in the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Bush's approval ratings on Iraq have risen by more than third, up 8 points in the last two months. For a president at such a low ebb for so long, that kind of movement is tantamount to a new lease on life.
Other polls confirm the trend, suggesting that the White House is enjoying something of a mini-bounce. Behind the scenes, senior officials are certainly behaving that way.
They're finding reason for hope on Capitol Hill. Republican support for the war in Congress was hemorrhaging this summer. Lately, however, the president's party appears to have stopped the bleeding—thanks in part to a series of visits to Iraq, where congressional delegations fell under the persuasive spell of Gen. David Petraeus, who toured them around some of Iraq's safer spots, even as violence continued to plague much of the rest of the country. The White House helped buck up the GOP ranks, lobbying hard to prevent further defections.
"If you talked to people in July, everyone thought when they came back in September the president was in a ton of trouble with Republicans and Democrats," said one former senior Bush aide, who requested anonymity because he did not want to break ranks with his former employers. "But a combination of things happened. In July you had a full surge level of troops on the ground. [National-security adviser] Steve Hadley was on Capitol Hill, and even though the reception wasn't good at the time, at least they started. And they tried to be more disciplined and manage their message. In the end, the key was having some good news. It may be relative, but it was good news."
The administration also tweaked its broader communications strategy. Instead of pushing the president out in front of the podium to talk about Iraq on a regular basis, Bush's aides decided to use their boss more sparingly. That gave them more time to develop speeches, lay the groundwork for new messages, and build up to the next PR push.
"It's the nature of the place that you get into a habit, and the White House became too quick to turn to the president as a messenger instead of rolling him out every once in a while," said one current senior Bush aide, who did not wish to be identified discussing internal strategy. "So his speeches are fewer and farther between, and they are more focused and honed and make a little news."
As Bush pulled back a bit, the White House pushed Gen. Petraeus forward. The message that might have been falling flat when advanced by a beleaguered president seemed to resonate more powerfully when delivered by a heavily decorated man in uniform.
The opposition party, meanwhile, struggled to take advantage of Bush's vulnerabilities. While the Democrats seemed to be building momentum just a few months ago, their message failed to take hold over the summer. Heading into the fall, the party's leading presidential contenders have begun to fire at one another over Iraq. That may help clarify Democrats' primary choices down the line. But every volley exchanged by Sens. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards are bullets not being aimed at Bush.
Still, Bush and his aides should enjoy the uptick while they can; there's no indication it will last any longer than the temporary easing of hostilities in parts of Baghdad. And beyond vowing to bring a small fraction of the current force home while leaving the rest there for some time to come, there isn't an enormous amount of strategic clarity. Two senior White House officials who briefed reporters before Bush's address used the kind of garbled jargon that undermines confidence that there is, in fact, a clear exit strategy.
"Let me just reveal some of the elements of both continuity and change that we've watched carefully in the NSC [National Security Council] from the substance perspective to ensure that we think we're on the right track," said one senior official. And what does that track look like, a few months on? "Iraq is an unpredictable, dynamic setting, and you don't do ourselves or anyone else favors by trying to forecast too far," the official said. "Don't overdrive your headlights is a way to sort of think about this," he cautioned.
Beg your pardon?
"This is not a change in mission in the sense of a light switch; we're not going to issue Petraeus a new mission tonight. The light switch flips and the mission across Iraq is different tomorrow morning," the official explained further. "Think of it, rather, as a change over time that might be reflected by a set of rheostats, okay—if you're electrically inclined here, OK?"
Most of the reporters on hand did not appear to be so inclined, regrettably. In fact they looked a little short-circuited. "It's not one rheostat for all of Iraq where you can just dial up different mission changes, but rather there are at least 18 of these, for the 18 provinces, and actually there are more than that. So it's a very complex, nonlinear, not uniform across-all-of-Iraq set of decisions that are represented here. But the mission will adapt over time and gradually, in a non-uniform way, we'll see a shift in mission."
Enjoy the mini-bounce, Mr. President. Off to study the rheostat.